Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What We're Up Against

It's no secret that progressives, secular humanists, rationalists, skeptics and all other manner of forward-thinking individuals face a myriad of different uphill battles, not the least of which is to prevent our own internal disputes from causing us to lose sight of what we're working for. That's why I find it helpful to sometimes take a step back and simply look at what sorts of challenges we face.

In particular, I find that in my own life, I tend to surround myself with people that, while far from exactly like-minded, share enough of my concerns that it's easy to forget that I hold many views that are very far from what is considered normal, even to the point of being taken for granted, in modern society. Advocating for atheism (and more generally, for skepticism), for instance, is not yet seen as acceptable in much of the United States. This makes it even more paramount to look at what those on the other side believe, think, do and say. Were I more into the militaristic metaphors with which so much of the English-speaking world seems to be so infatuated, I would say that we must know our enemies to defeat them. Instead, I'm going to be a physicist about it and say that we must know the potential energy function in which we move about.

Without further ado, then, let me start by noting that ours is a society in which people are fine with saying shallow and narrow-minded things like this:
While I was living there it was voted one of the top 10 cities for singles. What were they smoking? I want some! In Seattle I met the geeky Microsoft guy who used a discount card on our second date at a horrible restaurant. I met the engineer that ensured me he was not “a typical engineer”. Yes, yes you are. Socially awkward. Inappropriate conversation. Typical engineer. Wait, inappropriate conversation? You want more details on that? Okay…well the words “penis” and “vagina” were used, complete with gestures. Yes, that really did happen. On a date. In public. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
This kind of casual prudishness and enforcing of gender norms in dating formalisms (such as how to pay for a meal) should be seen as a large barrier towards creating a tolerant and sex-positive society in which people are free and encouraged to find and make their own happiness.

On a closely related note, the sex-negative and anti-porn group Porn Harms celebrates Facebook's shameful act of censorship:
Thank you Facebook! They just removed a very inappropriate pro-porn page with links to pornography that our children had easy access to.
Keep in mind, this is the same group of people that proudly repeats Gail Dines in saying that "pornography is a 'cultural support system for violence against women,'" at once trivializing violence against women and insulting all those who work hard to make the adult entertainment industry a responsible one.

Of course, this kind of sex-negativity ties into and is fed by religious sentiments, such as those espoused in this Islamic tract that predates on the emotionally vulnerable, or this poster which uses Islam is used to justify the locking of women into narrow and repressive gender roles:
Muslim women dress in a way that is modest and dignified. The purpose of clothing is not only to protect oneself from physical elements, but also to protect oneself from immorality and pride. Some traditions of dress, and more generally, the treatment of women in some Muslim countries and societies, are often a reflection of culture. This is very often inconsistent and even contrary to Islam teachings. Prophet Muhammad said: "The most perfect in faith among you believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife." [emphasis mine]
For all the poster's empty platitudes about the equality of women, there is no reasonable way to interpret the phrase "protect oneself from immorality and pride" here but to mean that women should feel shamed (that is, not proud) of their bodies in ways that men should not.

Not, mind you, that Islam is anywhere near alone in using religion to justify sex-negativity or misogyny. For example, the Christian fundamentalist Reformers Unanimous group advertises support for a questionable list of addictions, including "pornography addiction":
Help for: Addiction - Drug Intervention - Codependence - Rehab - Alcoholism - Meth Addiction - Gambling Addiction - Cocaine Addiction - Marijuana Addiction - Opiate Addiction - Codependence [sic] - Enabling - Nicotine Addiction - Pornography Addiction - Love Addiction
Amongst RU's approaches to what they see as problems is the gem that all we need to do is remember that "Christ is enough." If this reminds you of "Jesus Plus Nothing," pat yourself on the back. This kind of worldview, where religious sentiment is allowed to replace all other forms of thought, is a major driving force behind many of the political problems that we face in the world today.

Sadly, one of the other major driving forces being political problems, at least in the United States, is racism. Take, for instance, the vile screed written by Mark Williams of Tea Party infamy, which includes this choice bit:
We Colored People have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!
This is the same Mark Williams, mind you, that objects so vehemently to the construction of a mosque near 9/11 Ground Zero, and encourages the bombing of Mecca in response. This kind of abject racism lies at the heart of much of the Tea Party. Just ask Shirley Sherrod.

Since my attempt in this is not to depress you, I'll not go on in this vein. Rather, I will point out that for every one of the examples I've shown, there is someone who cares enough to work against that kind of hate, bigotry or just plain ignorance. Even if we disagree with these caring people on some fronts-- maybe even many fronts-- we must at least recognize that they are there, working for a just cause.

One of the key strengths of the spectrum of thoughts and ideals that includes such seemingly disparate causes as progressivism, rationalism, sex-positivity and feminism is that open-mindedness is (in general) celebrated. We can disagree with each other and still recognize what commonality we have in our goals. We do not strive, as our adversaries do, for perfect uniformity in thought and deed, but only for mutual respect of our fellow human beings and a dedication to truth. In short, we are not alone. That's good, I think, given what we're up against.


maymay said...

I fucking love just about every word of this. Ba-fucking-vo. :)

Kyle said...

Hi Chris,

I agree with the majority of what you write but think that you have gone too far at one point:

...advertises support for a questionable list of addictions, including "pornography addiction"

I'm not sure I see anything wrong with the list of addictions which follows that line. In particular, addiction to pornography is a very real and serious condition. I am not suggesting that one should be against pornography; if done in a responsible and non-coercive manner it is perfectly fine in my view. However, you need to realize that just as alcohol and marijuana are acceptable in moderation and yet can be abused to the point of addiction, the same holds true for porn.

Now this does not invalidate your point that Christianity often uses religion to advocate sex-negative positions, it just means that the evidence you provided is insufficient in this case.

Chris Granade said...

@maymay: Thanks for the compliment! Always glad when someone finds value in my writing.

@Kyle: Thanks for pointing that out. Any substance or activity can be psychologically addictive, and so when I am derisive towards the charge of pornography addiction, it is because I have not yet seen evidence that pornography is addictive in some stronger sense. I should have made that more clear, to be sure. For a more eloquent and educated take on the issue than mine, I'd refer you to Violet Blue's page on Concerns About Porn.

That aside, I have found that many Christian group, that one included, use the term "pornography addiction" not in any clinical sense, but as a dog-whistle for sex-negative advocacy. This is why I stand by the word "questionable," rather than "invalid" or some stronger word.

Anyway, I do try to always stay within the bounds of evidence, so I appreciate healthy criticism! Thanks!

Kyle said...

@Chris: I'm not sure I understand your reply. It is certainly true that there exist people who have addictions to pornography in the exact same way there are people who have addictions to alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. Pornography addiction is no more "questionable" that alcohol addiction. It may be that Christian groups use the term "pornography-addiction" in an improper, and perhaps inappropriate, sense. But that is an assertion you have made and the burden of proof is on you. The evidence you have provided has not shown that the group is sex-negative any more than it has shown the group is alcohol-negative or marijuana-negative. They may well be (in fact I am quite sure they are all of the above), but all your evidence has show is that they claim to provide support for very real and very serious addictions.

I'm sure it isn't too hard to find strong evidence that Christian groups are sex-negative, and I would suggest that maybe such evidence should be linked to to support your argument.


Chris Granade said...

@Kyle: I actually disagree that the existence of pornography addiction is a certainty. It's a controversial enough issue that it didn't make the new behavior addictions section of the DSM-5, leaving only gambling addiction, and an appendix to stimulate further research. WebMD has a decent article up summarizing some of the debate on whether pornography addiction exists.

As for finding examples of dog-whistle uses of the term to indicate a more generic sex-negativity, I must admit that I don't have ready examples, as I am relatively new to this and haven't kept myself as organized as I should for that kind of critique. I'll take it as an interesting challenge, though, and will try to find some specific examples for you. For now, though, I don't have any to give... sorry.

Chris Granade said...

@Kyle: I've found a couple examples, and though I'm still not terribly satisfied with what I found, I figured I should go on and share them.

First, I thought I should mention that one of the louder of the current anti-porn crowd is a woman named Gail Dines. Ms. Magazine has an interesting interview with her, along with rebuttals to some of her points. Sex educator Charlie Glickman offers some good arguments as to why Dines' particular line of argument is inherently sex-negative. This is a fairly weak example, as I don't think that Dines' convictions are blatantly religious, but it does demonstrate an association between the use of the phrase "pornography addiction" and overall sex-negativity.

For a more Christian attitude on pornography addiction, there's a couple examples that I found. First, XXXChurch, which produces and sells a line of pornography addiction recovery aids, including videos and software tools to make accessing pornography more difficult. In addition, X3C maintains an official blog with opinions on sexual issues by their contributors. In particular, this column seemed to demonstrate a rather regressive view of sexuality, in which the use of pornography is equivocated with shame about sexuality. To wit:

"What I discovered is that the answer to the “why porn” question has a lot more to do with him than it does with me. Porn is really about something so much deeper. It’s about fears, insecurities, pain, and a million other things that develop from a desperation to feel whole. It’s really about things that I didn’t cause or perpetuate."

I also found via X3C a link to this throughly disgusting little e-book called Porn-Again Christian. One whole chapter is not much more than a transcript of an interview between Ted Bundy and James Dobson on the eve of Bundy's execution. This transcript is intended to convey to the reader that Bundy's pornography addiction helped facilitate his serial murdering. The book is filled with sex-negativity, including one particularly sick example from Chapter 7, where men are encouraged to be at least somewhat ashamed of wet dreams:

"Question: Is it a sin to have a wet dream?

"Answer: Men who have erotic dreams must first be sure that they are not spending their days filling their minds with images that rattle around their imagination as they dream at night. They should also pray before they sleep each night that God would protect them from the enemy inside of them (their flesh) and the enemy outside of them (the devil). But, if a man should have a wet dream after taking precautions to not lust, there is little he can do to prevent this from happening. For some men, a wet dream is simply the body’s way of relieving itself and may be little more than a natural biological function."

That's all I have for now, but I'll keep an eye out.