The religious right and the objectification of women
You know, I focus a lot on the most extreme examples of the misogyny on the religious right on this and other websites, in part because that sort of thing captures one’s attention—the calls for forced childbirth, the occasional apologies of domestic violence and rape, the obsession with defining women more by the contents of their vagina and uterus than what’s in their hearts and minds, that sort of thing. What it all goes back to is the concept of objectification, easily the most misunderstood concept in feminist thinking. Feminists and even some modesty-obsessed anti-feminists alike tend to reduce the word to meaning that someone is being sexualized, though of course they have different approaches to how to handle that (most of the time). I use it to mean that someone is being reduced to an object whose worth is measured solely in her usefulness to others. This is not a small distinction. For instance, anti-choicers will often put on faux concern for women and say that abortion and birth control “objectify” women, because presumably they involve admitting sex exists, and in their eyes, sex is automatically degrading to women, and certainly not something good girls choose for themselves. But under the correct definition of “objectification”, abortion and birth control work against it, because they give a woman power to define her own life on her terms, and not be forced to live as someone else’s choice-free breeding machine. Indeed, criminalizing abortion is a form of objectifying women, because it reduces women to these choiceless breeding machines.
But off that subject, I was impressed by a couple of blog posts that looked at some of the subtler ways women are objectified and treated like second class citizens within the religious right. Evan Hurst wrote about the role of the long-suffering wife of the closet case, er, the ex-gay in the religious right.
Alan is probably moreso burdened because, as a gay man, he has remained married to a woman, thereby hijacking her life and her opportunity to be with a man who truly wants her, all of her. But yet, instead of taking his inner conflict and at least keeping it to himself, Alan has chosen to use his perceived victimhood to victimize another. The fact that his wife may be oblivious to this is irrelevant. These men have simply taken the normal patriarchal control over women to a new, sick level, but it’s part of a theme that’s been running through religious ideology for centuries: women are not viewed as whole, valid sexual beings on their own. They are captives to an idea of “male headship,” and their needs — emotional, physical, mental, spiritual — are secondary to those of their husbands. Put simply, these women are caught up in a lifestyle where their husbands are the final arbiters of their needs.
Gayle Haggard is on the road playing the martyred wife to a T, and this is exactly what she’s selling—the idea that a good Christian wife should want nothing from her marriage but to be a brave servant, and that you’re somehow a better woman for sticking by a man who is committed not to you, but to the idea of marriage as a duty that he must fulfill to win man points. (Mark Sanford played that card publicly on his wife, and she finally said no, winning her accolades from people who’ve probably grown too used to the idea of the abject political wife, and that women who reject that are the exceptions.) Evan’s right; for all the attention paid to these men who are denying their sexual needs, there’s very little paid to the women who are denying their own. I’m sure many of them would think it’s completely shameful and whorish for a woman to insist that her partner want her for real, instead of viewing her as an object to be manipulated to serve his needs. The narrative of the Christian wife married to a closet case is this: Sure, what he needs me to do for him is different than what a straight man would want, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same thing, right? Service is service.
Of course, there are “ex-gays” that are female. The few I’ve seen taking a public role are married to “ex-gay” men, though.
Which leads me to a blog I always read when I want a laugh: Stuff Christian Culture Likes. Stephanie wrote about a relatively new trend, the “30 Day Sex Challenge“, where married couples in evangelical congregations swear to have sex for 30 days. I heard about this before, and rolled my eyes, because it mostly seemed like these churches are trying to counter their justified reputation of being anti-sex by trying to sell married sex as the end-all, be-all. But of course, in a classic religious right way, the attempt is self-contradicting, because if you have to march people to the bedroom, then it ends up implying sex is a big time chore. But I hadn’t thought about the whole thing in the context of the hyper-macho, often misogynist fundie culture. Stephanie connected the dots.
With all of this propaganda the pitfalls aren’t discussed. The wife could feel objectified or emotionally neglected, but if she has been immersed in Christian culture she could dismiss these feelings as being selfish and sinful. And men in Christian culture sure as hell do not speak openly about being too tired for sex or feeling emotionally neglected. The machismo undercurrent in Christian culture is pretty effective in shaming men into acting stronger in the traditional sense, even though Christ modeled strength in the most untraditional sense.
A couple of people called her out for this quote earlier in the post: “The husbands are stoked. The wives act like they are too.” They said she was implying women aren’t as sexual as men. I don’t think that was her implication at all. I think the above paragraph gets closer to her point, which is that “30 Day Sex Challenges” are rooted in the fundie idea that marriage is about women serving men, and therefore the only sexual problem they consider is when women are withholding, and men are feeling like they aren’t orgasming frequently enough. Without coming out and saying it—well, kind of—they’re reinforcing the notion that sex is basically a duty performed by women to relieve men’s bodily needs. A number of commenters pointed out that a period is likely to come around during that 30 days, and that many women don’t like to have intercourse during their period. (Or men, either.) But if you buy the unspoken framework this is being promoted in, then that probably doesn’t matter, because as long as he gets off, it counts.
But wait!, I can hear protests. A lot of women are horny and undersexed because their husbands have lower sex drives! What about them? Well, I have a good reason to think this 30 Day Sex Challenge thing has nothing whatsoever to do with that particular problem. After all, the slogan is, “Every man’s fantasy: 30 days of sex! Every woman’s dream: 30 days of intimacy!” But of course, it’s not the intimacy challenge. The people promoting this aren’t telling husbands that they should spend 30 days attending to their wives non-sexual emotional and physical desires. The slogan tacitly admits that this is a challenge aimed at making women do their job of balls-draining better.
I think Stephanie knows better than I do what’s going on, and her insight is interesting. I’ll bet a lot of beds go cold in marriages built around the presumption that women are there to serve men, and that sex is mainly about relieving a man’s horniness so that he doesn’t break the rules against adultery and masturbation. That viewpoint makes sex masturbation into women’s bodies—the objectification that Stephanie talks about—instead of a shared experience borne out of passion and desire. Sex that started off hot could quickly turn into a chore for women who are basically being objectified in this way, and not attended to as people whose desires count. It’s not that men and women have different needs, but in this culture, men are cast as the ones who have needs and women as the ones who meet them (and men’s needs that don’t fit the stereotype are also left unfulfilled, making this a miserable go-round).
It’s this sort of thing that really shows how you can’t just airlift one issue out of many. The forwarding of Sarah Palin by the religious right has been an argument, basically that you can hold women to certain misogynist standards without actually hurting them and holding them back. But as these examples show, you can’t really put women in a servile position to their husbands and write it off as a cute religious practice that has no greater impact on women’s well-being in ways large and small.