Christian Boys on How Girls Can Stop Making Them “Stumble”: (Hint: Don’t Move. And Make Sure You’re Not-Moving On Purpose.)

I love the smell of sexism in the evening. Are you ready for “The Rebelution“? Where teenagers “rebel against low expectations”? Sociological Images published the results of a survey of 1600 Christians on how “modest” they consider various articles of clothing and behavior (and the corresponding “value” of the wearer/actor). Boys and girls took the survey and the behaviors of both genders were up for discussion. It was a productive conversation wherein both sides got to express their points of view and their spiritual and physical struggles with desire.

Ha. I kid.

Here’s what really happened: the only gender subjected to the “Modest or Not” test? Women. (Sorry, “girls.”) The 1600 respondents invited to minutely inspect and judge every aspect of female behavior, attire and deportment? Men. (Correction: “guys.”) The theological dimension? None—unless you count “stumbling,” an undefined expression the survey uses to describe a temporary lapse, always by a male in response to female lures.

The “Modesty Survey” got its start when a young woman suggested an “anonymous discussion on modesty” between boys and girls. The survey counts itself a rousing success at achieving this (potentially quite useful) goal. The number of female respondents? Zero. Girls were apparently encouraged to ask questions, just not answer them.

Respondents were given statements with which they could agree or disagree. The good part: the Christian boys often seemed to be quite a bit more thoughtful than whoever put this survey together. The bad part? Whoever designed it seems to have wilfully ignored two truths—boys have self-control, girls feel desire—and one claim: neither sex has any business policing the movements of the other.

Here are some sample statements boys are invited to have an opinion about. They can Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral [not a verb, that always bugs me], Disagree, or Strongly Disagree:

  • Playing with jewelry, such as a necklace, is a stumbling block.” (Result: 58% “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” Phew!)
  • A purse with the strap diagonally across the chest draws too much attention to the bust.” (Result: 47% of respondents “Agree” or “Strongly Agree.” According to that bunch, messenger bags are  for whores.) To be fair, some guys were a little more sensible. One comments: “This is a case where if the guy is staring then he should check himself on that. I wear a messenger bag myself, so I can’t hold a double standard. I can, however, hold myself to a higher standard and just not look.”
  • Others had detailed procedures; some were ready to break out the measuring cups:

    “Depends upon how heavy the bag is. If the strap pushes on the shirt such that the breasts are separated as one looks down, it’s immodest.”

  • “Playing with hair is not a stumbling block.” 61% agree! Girls can play with their hair, but by gum, THERE ARE LIMITS:

    “Not in of itself, but if you spend a lot of time playing with your hair it makes a guy wonder if you aren’t trying to attract attention.”

    And if a guy is [count the qualifiers] wondering whether you might be trying to attract attention, you are conclusively IMMODEST. Someone else offers the following clarification:

    “Technically, it’s a flirting technique.”

    According to this young man, “flirting techniques” are not “stumbling blocks” in the pursuit of Christianity. An 18-year old respondent, however, does “find it hard to imagine a beautiful and modest woman doing it. It does perhaps exceed the bounds of propriety.”

Try this one on for size:

  • It is a stumbling block to see a girl lying down, even if she’s just hanging out on the floor or on a couch with her friends.” (22% agreed.)

Or this one!

  • Seeing a girl’s chest bounce when she is walking or running is a stumbling block. No running, ladies. Or walking, unless you have strapped your boobs down like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In sum, cross-dressing might be best.

How about this?

  • The lines of undergarments, visible under clothing, cause guys to stumble.” (72% Agree or Strongly Agree). As this is virtually impossible with the majority of bras, you may want to dispense with them altogether. Or cross-dress (see above).
  • Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over the head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath.” Here’s a fascinating comment:

    “It kind of depends, if she is careful it is not a problem, but most girls don’t think about it and so it becomes one. It’s not that they don’t care, it just isn’t something they think usually think of.”

“It isn’t something they think usually of.” Amazing how much real understanding that shows, and how radically it goes off-track. That statement says something true about a basically “modest” existence—a perspective so pure  it doesn’t even suspect that the behavior in question might provoke lust—yet contains within it the injunction that she should “think of” the lust she is always in danger of provoking.  In other words, it’s not enough for her to be innocent. She needs to be intentional about her refusal to arouse. But not too much, because if she shows she understands too well, she’s in danger of (oh devilry!) abusing that knowledge to “get attention.” Not to court attention is insufficient: she should “be careful” when she takes a sweater off.  She needs to actively, deliberately not-arouse. She should become self-conscious, limit her movements, regard herself not as a thing that exists and sees, but as a terrible catalyst that can at any moment tempt men to their eternal damnation.

That’s not enough, of course. In order to understand how not to arouse her Christian brothers, she must first understand what does. (Like messenger bags.) To protect them properly, she has to become not just conversant but fluent in all possible masculine sexual fantasies. She has to learn their origin and derivation. She has to study how men can possibly convert an innocent movement (like walking) into an erotic stimulus. In fact, she has to become a virtual Ph.D. on masculine sexuality; she has to become a fantasizing male-by-proxy in order to avoid tempting any such male. She must call on all her resources, her empathy, her understanding, to imagine what it is like to be male and incorrigibly sexual. And she should perform these empathic acrobatics without having any sexual thoughts of her own.

Now, this is all ostensibly to protect the souls of her “Christian brothers.” What about her soul? From a Christian point of view, can there be a better recipe for temptation than to force a human being to become a theoretical expert in precisely the imaginary prurient scenarios that ostensibly jeopardize the souls of men?

Back to the survey. To state the obvious, here’s what all this teaches boys: All that matters is your reaction. The difference between a modest behavior and an immodest one is the desire it stirs or doesn’t stir in you. Ideally, a woman will fully understand her awful power and control it responsibly; if not, it’s her fault. But since a woman’s (I’m sorry, “girl’s”) intent is unknowable, what determines her success or failure at “modesty” is the effect she produces on you. Moreover, Christian boys, your subjective state of arousal at a particular moment trumps a “girl’s” liberty to exist freely (the way you do). Women should actively police their behaviors, their movements, their clothing and their faces so you don’t have to spend the occasional (and unavoidable) tempted minute staring into your own soul. And rest assured: girls feel no desire or temptation themselves, so you are free to be as attractive and flirtatious as you like without feeling a moment’s guilt. Your relationship to your body can be joyous. It doesn’t fall to you to labor under the metaphysical mindfuck of being told that your body—YOUR body! the one you were born in, the thing you are!—shares in the guilt it provokes in others the minute it takes any pleasure in its God-given beauty. Boys, you needn’t know that your beauty is also your disease (as a result of which you may end up among the damned; in the absence of which you may end up alone).

To state something equally obvious: none of this disaster of a philosophy is the boys’ fault. I have no doubt the Modesty Survey respondents have good hearts. They’re grappling with one of the great human problems: how to deal with the fact that you live in and through a body, and how to understand the complicated dance between desire and its fulfillment or diffusion. These are all large and complex issues of personhood and it is certainly not the boys’ fault that this survey invites toxic answers. (By virtue of its structure, the survey excludes any other kind). The fault lies with the pernicious idiots who invent “tools” like this one, tools that claim to measure but actually perpetuate the dehumanizing idea that one gender gets to dictate what the other one does.

Here is the real image for the survey. I wish I were kidding:

Maybe when Christians adopt the veil we’ll finally have world peace.

Or maybe, instead of turning girls into stones by making them feel guilty for the physics of their bodies when they walk, we can teach each sex not to blame the other when it “stumbles.” We could all work on getting better balance.

M

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Why Women Don’t Make Top Ten Lists: Prose on Prose

Dear CF,

Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998.  It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.

[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]

“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”

[Prose meditates on why this might be:]

“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]

“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’

[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]

“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’

“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’

“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”

[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]

“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:

I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.

She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.

“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.

The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.

As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”

Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control.  Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.

One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.

Fondly,

M

Safe Sex

Perhaps the next installment in our “Now We Know” series:

Also, both of their hair reminds me of those pastel decals that are sometimes on strip mall beauty shop windows.  The 80s or early 90s?

A Nerve Is A Nerve Is A Nerve

Back to the original conversation, my last post was a bit of a detour, I think you are right about the strange lack of real sex on the Internet.  I perused Figleaf’s website, and was charmed.  This also led me to a resource called Scarleteen, which has an amazingly articulate stance on teens and sex education.

It seems that with other representations of healthy sexuality, they are all particularly fierce.  Nerve.com, Dan Savage, the inquisitive ladies at Jezebel, all offer a sexuality that feels to me like a glossy version of the thing that I am supposed to want, much like reading makeup tips in Seventeen magazine, or perusing the Sephora catalogue.  I want them, but eyebrow gel and foundation primer elixirs have very little place in my actual life.

I do marvel at how open sexuality is in certain ways–that dildos and vibrators are now quite unshocking.  That sex stores are understood venues, always with an educated, helpful staff.   That  it is a fashionable expectation to spend $80 on sex accessories.  Good Vibes and Babeland and Smitten Kitten all offer this idea of sex as very fun health, fully accessible through the heightened pleasure of accoutrement.

Before venturing into the the sex wilderness, I had a good long time of walking in the desert (its own famous wilderness).  I went from zero to full throttle fairly quickly, and luckily at an age and mentality where that was exactly appropriate.  But, going so long with so little experiential information did leave me with a giant heap of expectations.  Every book I read since I was ten promised sex as THE MOMENT, the one time in life where things got as good as they would get as a human.  Sex was shown to be better than drugs, better than getting an award, and definitely better than any dessert that had “better than sex” as part of its title.  I really thought that  when I finally had sex I would understand ecstasy and  that I would see the capacity for joy in bodies.  I was ready to participate in what seemed to be the big prize of being an adult human.

And then, like most drugs, it was shocking that I had the ability to imagine something so much more divine than the real thing.  Pot makes my face itchy and I get slurry.  Booze makes me talk a lot, and the general physical effect is one of hyper-relaxation.  Cigarettes make me alert.  With all of those things, each their own little forbidden city where I imagined grand things before rolling around in them, my main reaction was “oh? I thought this would be more fun.”  The fun was there, it just wasn’t the fun I imagined before trying them.  And the fun was complicated by very mundane things (nausea, the luck of who you were with, money) and the normal limits of good feeling.   The same with sex (excusing nausea and money).  It was so weird to realize that it did feel good, but it wasn’t good in any new earth shattering way.  I hadn’t found a new strain of chemical in my brain.  Different nerves were firing, sure, but they were making the same brew in my brain.  There were no new colors of the universe revealed, no small death (and rebirth), and no uncontrolled tears (I honestly don’t understand the crying orgasm thing).

Which leads me to a scary part of writing about sex and not being ferociously sexual in the usually presented way–the worry that in revealing what I consider “real” and not postured, I am inviting a pity party from the sexually advanced and enlightened.  That it’s me, not them, and that my poo-pooing of all the glamor and accounts of unadulterated vigor (machinated or not) is my dearth, not theirs.

Also, Scarleteen has an amazing checklist for teens to see if they are ready to have sex, and it had a particularly insightful note about expectations in sex: “the less we expect, the more we often receive.”  This again made me think of the submissive/slave scenario you mentioned that was the most intense moment in the fella’s life, and the lieu of misery that many a hired/planned scenario might make.  And Christmas.

So, you were a nurse?

Yours,

CF