Thursday, December 6, 2007

Which Sex Killed Jesus--For Shayla

Which Sex Killed Jesus?
Bernadette Barton and Ric N. Caric
Morehead State University

In 2006, after close to six years of the presidential administration of the self-identified conservative Christian George W. Bush, the radical Christian Right has gained political and economic ascendency through such organizations as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority. These groups promote the interlocking triumpherate of traditional family, religion and government to, in their words, “provide a framework for social order.” To accomplish their goals, chief among them anti-abortion and anti-homosexual lobbying, conservative Christians explictly draw upon the Bible as the primary source of God’s design for humanity. The Mission statement for the Focus on the Family website reads, “To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of marriage.”

Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority are evangelical organizations whose religious purpose is to convert others to Christianity. Most of the leaders and members of such groups advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. American fundamentalist doctrine includes five beliefs: the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith, the bodily resurection of Jesus, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles and/or his premillenial second coming (General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, 1910). Although we ideologically and intellectually oppose both the Christian fundamentalist political agenda and religious proscription that the Bible is “inerrant,” in this paper we follow the path of the biblical fundamentalists. Drawing on the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John in the King James version of the Bible, we demonstrate a “fundamental truth” previously unexplored in contemporary culture: men killed Jesus. This is largely a straw argument, for neither author is spiritually or intellectually invested in blaming men for the death of Jesus. Our goals in developing this argument are threefold: 1). To make visible the patriarchal forces of early Christianity, 2). To argue that Jesus had a feminist sensibility, and 3). In doing so, illustrate the narrow-mindedness required of fundamentalist reading.

The Catalyst
In 2004 Mel Gibson’s wildly popular film, The Passion of the Christ grossed $370 million. The buzz about the film was everywhere, on websites, in blogs, reviewed and discussed throughout the media. Additionally, religious leaders in the pulpit encouraged parishioners to view the film. Indeed, whole churches rented out theaters for private showings of the film. The 127 minute blood-soaked Passion begins with Jesus’ last supper and continues through his execution. Gibson, a catholic, explained to the press that "I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be." Gibson explained that the film remained true to the scriptures. Critics decried the film as overly violent, lacking a coherent narrative, and anti-semitic while droves of the devout prayed through the opening credits.

It was while watching the Passion itself on video, and fast-forwarding through the goriest scenes, that a more empirically plausible, indeed fundamental, answer to the question of Christ-killing forcibly struck us.

Men killed Jesus.

Yes, the film reflected a certain anti-semitism -- hooded Pharisees demanding the death of Jesus, a somber, noble Pilate seeking an alternative to killing Jesus -- but the real story of the Passion, to our feminist gaze, was about the men. We observed: Male religious leaders (Pharisees) condemn Jesus to the Roman authorities, a man betray him (Judas), a man sentence him (Pontius Pilate), men torture him (the Temple and Roman soldiers), male disciples of Jesus deny him (Peter et al), and men nail him to the cross, and stab a spear in his side (Roman soldiers). The question the film raised for us, then, is if men, as a sex, shared an interest in killing Jesus. And, if so, how might have Jesus’ person, bearing, message, or actions provoked the men of his time? What psychological qualities, customs, interests, education, and sexuality of the period potentially encouraged men to be hostile to Jesus teachings? More simply, “What is it about men that would make them Christ-killers?”

In contrast, while there undoubtedly were women in the crowd of Jewish on-lookers shouting to “crucify him,” no single significant woman participated in the torture and murder of Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene stayed with him through the ordeal, Pilate’s wife cautioned her husband against condemning what she perceived of as a “just” man, a woman (Veronica) wiped his face when Jesus was carrying the cross, women prepared his body after death, and Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. Jesus’ female disciples and incidental aquaintances did not manufacture nor participate in the the murder of Jesus – according to Mel Gibson. Since we are loathe to solely rely upon Gibson’s authority in this, we substantiated our theory with a careful, fundamentalist reading of the King James version of the four gospel narratives of Jesus’ life. Drawing primarily from biblical scripture, we will explore the role men played in the death of Jesus and argue that, in doing so, Jewish men, Roman men, rulers, soldiers, religious leaders, farmers and fishermen all shared at least a partial interest in suppressing Jesus’ anti-masculine message of self-sacrifice.

Religious Authority
Hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees emerged early in his ministry. The Pharisees policed Sabbath regulations, purity prescriptions, and dietary restrictions. Widely respected for their piety and accepted as the authoritative interpreters of biblical law by the Jewish population, the Pharisees differentiated themselves by carrying phylacteries to hold the Torah and wearing special robes. Jesus challenged the authority of the Pharisees in three ways. First, Jesus rejected their authority to interpret the Torah. Jesus insisted that the primary relationship between a person and God was through him as the Son of God rather than through Hebrew Law. In this, Jesus not only challenged Pharisaic interpretations of the Law, but invalidated the Pharisees as interpreters of the Law. For example, Jesus violated the Sabbath injunction to do no work by healing a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath with Pharisees present. He justified this action with a parable about a shepherd who would tend a sheep, “What man shall there be among you that shall have one sheep and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11) Most significantly, Jesus expressed that he had the authority to forgive sins and cast out demons, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to fogive sins.” (Mark 2:10).

Deeply threatened, the Jewish political and religious establishment mobilized. The Pharisees, both locally and throughout the nation state, began plotting ways to execute Jesus while continuing to engage him in verbal debate. Such debate was a tricky attempt to trap Jesus into making blasphemous remarks that could justify his execution. (Jesus proved himself more verbally adept than the Pharisees). The Gospel of John makes this point most strongly by emphasizing that Jesus could not travel in Jewish territory because of the religious establishment’s efforts to kill him. According to John, concern about Jesus reached the chief priest Caiaphas. Caiaphas worried Jesus’ popularity might provoke the Romans to anihilate the Jewish nation and indicated that Jesus would have to die for the sake of the people as a whole.

Second, Jesus directly attacked the Pharisees as hypocrites. In Matthew 23, he launched a long denunciation of the Pharisees and scribes that Anthony J. Salderini calls the “seven woe oracles.” Seven times, Jesus pronounced “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” as he condemned them. By their greed, the Pharisees had devoured widow’s houses, while their false teachings had infected their followers. More portentously, Jesus claimed that the similarity between the motivations of the Pharisees and those who had killed the prophets meant not only that the Pharisees had been implicated in the murder of the prophets, but that they, and, implicitly, their followers, could be linked to all the murders of the righteous from Abel forward. According to Matthew, Jesus also calls the Pharisees “blind,” “fools,” “serpents,” “vipers,” and warned that it will be difficult for them to “escape the damnation of hell” (Matthew 23:34).

Third, Jesus explicitly identified those perceived as most debased by the Pharisees - lepers, poor, tax collectors, women - as closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the Pharisees themselves. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus sought and embraced those most excluded from the ritual sanctities of Judaism. Further, unlike the Pharisees, Jesus and his followers did not fast. In fact, they ate and drank heartily, and associated with known sinners like tax collectors (or publicans), lepers, and the sick. Such individuals would have been viewed as chronically “unclean.” Also considered to be “unclean” were women, especially during menstruation and following childbirth. During these periods women were isolated within their households and subject to the authority of their fathers and husbands. Thus, excluded from almost all public functions and largely confined to their houses, the public presence of women among Jesus’ followers further damaged him in the eyes of the Pharisees.

Even worse, more than one biblical narrative demonstrates Jesus favoring women over the Pharisees. In Luke 7:36-50, for example, Jesus visits the house of a Pharisee named Simon. As Jesus sat down to his meat with Simon, a woman “which was a sinner” came into the house with a box of expensive alabaster ointment, stood behind Jesus weeping, “and began to wash his feet with tears.” She wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair before kissing and anointing them with ointment. Watching this act, Simon questioned Jesus’ status as prophet, thinking “if he were a prophet, he would have known what manner this woman is that toucheth him” and, then, send her away in shame. Recognizing Simon’s thoughts, Jesus rebukes him:

Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for
my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs
of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in
hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but
this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.[i]

Here, Jesus indicates that he valued this woman’s behavior, in spite of her sins, more than Simon’s in all his pompous piety. This woman (Mary Magdalene in the gospel of John) “loved much” and showed that love through her service. For Jesus, love showed itself most forcefully in a willingness to subordinate oneself to God and others. Desiring forgiveness and animated by a faith that Jesus could provide that forgiveness, the woman eagerly devoted herself to caring for Jesus’ feet. The woman’s love for Jesus recalls several of the important themes in the four gospels. Her abject behavior and longing for forgiveness reflects the first blessing in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Moreover, the menial act of care for Jesus’ feet and her “tainted” reputation as a sinner correspond with the Jesus’ dictum that the “last shall come first and the first shall come last.” Finally, Jesus himself followed the model of foot-washing as a means to show love to his disciples in John’s account of the Last Supper. Of all the individuals, Jesus encountered in his ministry his actions most resembled this “sinning” woman.[ii]

In contrast, while Simon may not have violated Pharasiac law and felt himself a “sinner,” his conduct was in conflict with Jesus and his teachings. Pious in his own eyes, little burdened by a need for forgiveness, Simon offered Jesus no abject, loving service. Jesus expressed, “to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” The woman’s consciousness of her sins - her uncleanliness - enabled her redemption while Simon’s sense of self-satisfied authority crippled his salvation. Even worse Simon, like the Pharisees generally, cared most about his reputation, an external matter distracting one from service to God. Carrying the books of the Torah, tithing, observing dietary restrictions, and efforts to ensure that the rest of the Jewish population observed those restrictions were all ways that the Pharisees demonstrated their piety and created social capital among their fellow men. Such concern for reputation constituted a “public display” to Jesus, not an illustration of sincere piety of the Law. Jesus made this same criticism of the Pharisees many times,“But all their works they do for to be seen by men; they . . . love the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues and greetings in the markets, and to be called Rabbi, Rabbi.”

Jesus held the practices of the Pharisees in contempt saying in Luke, “ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” Acting as authoritative interpreters of the Law among the Jewish people, enforcing religious prescriptions, influencing Temple ritual, and other indications of their public esteem made them “unclean” (or abominable) in a way much worse than the “sins” of the woman who sought forgiveness through service. Indeed, Jesus expresses that the very act of reputation-building was tainted with a sinfulness much greater than transgressions against the law the Pharisees regulated. Because the Pharisees sought to justify themselves “before men,” their education in the Law, following of ritual prescriptions, carrying the Torah, and wearing of special robes all compromised spiritual cleanliness. To Jesus then, Simon was a monster of presumption, an “abomination in the sight of God,” by the time they sat down to eat. It was because of this presumption that Simon the Pharisee could not love Jesus in the manner of the woman with the alabaster ointment, and that Jesus found him lacking.[iii]
Indeed, Jesus demonstrated a deeper regard for non-Jewish women than he did the Pharisees. When traveling on the borders of Tyre and Sidon, a Syro-Phoenician woman came to ask him to cast a devil out of her daughter. Jesus initially rebuffed her saying that it was “not meet to take the children’s (Isreael’s) bread and cast it unto the dogs (the Gentiles).” But, when she replied, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs,” Jesus relented and healed her daughter. Like the woman with the alabaster ointment, the Syro-Phoenician woman debased herself before Jesus, acknowledging her inferiority as a non-Jewish person. This act sanctified her in the eyes of God and Jesus responded. The Pharisees never demonstrated a willingness to debase themselves before God.

We theorize that the Pharisees’ reluctance to assume an inferior location to Jesus is directly related to their male and class privilege. Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and chief priests enjoyed a higher occupational status among the Jewish population as a whole. The Jewish faith also privileged men over women, casting men as the sanctified heads of households while associating women with pollution. Hence, according to Jewish law, women could not act as religious leaders nor had the authority to interpret scripture. Simon and the other Pharisees shared gender capital because they were men. Thus, although Jesus did not explictly critique women’s subordination under Pharisee religious law, he condemning a critical dimension of male supremacy when he condemned the Pharisees for their sense of their own religious sanctity and declared his preference for those who were polluted and attainted.[iv] By the time Jesus established himself in Jerusalem, he and the religious authorities had become like two enemy armies warily stalking each other as they prepare for battle. The Pharisees were seeking to kill Jesus in the name of all of the understandings and prerogatives associated with orthodox Jewish religion. For his part, Jesus was threatening those who followed the conventional masculine paths to sanctity with damnation and greater damnation, and demanding a model of painful humility and service best exemplified by the woman with the alabaster ointment and better manifested by women in general than males.[v]

Jesus did not explicitly criticize patriarchy. He did, however, radically devalue aspects of material life that bolstered the interests, values, and privilege of males, particularly wealth. Indeed, he condemned the accumulation of property, possessions, and money even more than the social capital flaunted by the Pharisees. Everything that men invested in their property (and families) compromised their ability to have a relationship with God, according to Jesus, who further expressed that God would avenge such behavior with hellfire. Like bolstering their religious authority, those who killed Jesus protected their economic interests as they had him arrested, tried, and executed.

Jesus’ cast his objections to wealth very narrowly. He did not identify the pursuit and accumulation of wealth as inherently selfish or unethical, nor did he perceive the wealthy as necessarily animated by greed or cruelty. Instead, Jesus critiqued wealth to the extent that the accumulation and possession of wealth shaped a person’s posture toward God, specifically that: 1. attention focused on wealth was not attention paid to God; 2. labor and material success made one independent of God and; 3. the enjoyment of and prestige associated with wealth was contrary to the model of suffering that Jesus promoted. For Jesus, the possession of material wealth was potentially more sinful than a single act one might commit, such as adultery.
In Luke 12: 13-21, Jesus illustrated this. Asked for advice about an inheritance dispute, Jesus expresses that it is not for him to mediate “covetousness.” Rather, Jesus warns the crowd gathered not to focus on material possessions with the following parable:

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within
himself saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my
fruits? And he said. This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater;
and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul,
Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink,
and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be
required of thee: when whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?
So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is nor rich toward God.”[vi]
The rich man’s extensive possessions and his self-satisfaction are forms of material “fullness” that Jesus condemned in Luke (“But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation .

Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger.”) Accumulating wealth is condemnable when it demonstrates that one is serving “mammon” (riches, material wealth) rather than God. Jesus warned, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” By devoting himself to mammon and accumulating wealth, the rich man offended God. Because the rich man was serving himself rather than God, God obtained revenge by killing the man, stripping him of his possessions, and forcing him to contemplate other men owning his wealth. “[T]hen whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is nor rich toward God.”[vii] Having toiled in the service of the material - cultivating his land, calculating his investments, and supervising his laborers - rather than developing a relationship with God, the rich man had no heavenly savings account to draw on at his death. Jesus warned that the material is transitory and undependable while a relationship with God is ever-lasting. In this parable, God is so affronted by the rich man’s complacency and poor judgment that He gives him foreknowledge of his death.

Jesus then radicalized his stance against wealth by announcing an invocation against labor. “Therefore he said unto his disciples. Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.” Given that God provided food for the raven, decoration for the lilies of the field, and clothing for the grass, Jesus asked why men should not count on God to provide these things without their having to labor. “Seek ye the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” For Jesus, labor was questionable because it involved a self-reliance in opposition to dependence on God. Not only accumulating wealth, but maintaining one’s subsistence compromised one’s devotion to God. Instead, Jesus instructed his followers to depend on God for food, clothing, and shelter rather than their own efforts, to “sell that ye have and give alms,” and to be “yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding . . . and will come forth and serve him.” Instead of enjoying what they produce, Jesus preached that the devout should never waver from attention and service to God, no matter how long the wait. “And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.” This was the only way that men could give God all the devotion that was due him and avoid God’s eternal punishments.[viii]
This kind of service is one that women learned from childhood through domestic labor. And, where the rich man was head of his household and only subject to the laws of the Roman state and god, even wealthy women were subject to the authority of their fathers or husbands. Owning agricultural property was almost entirely a male privilege during the Biblical period (the only exception to this were widows without sons). The freedom and independence material wealth provides enhances an individual’s self-sufficiency, something that Jesus found dangerous because it distracted one from service to God. Hence, the rich man’s self-satisfaction was peculiarly male. In contrast, the rich man’s “wife” (assuming he had one) could not make decisions regarding the construction of new barns, nor “eat, drink, and be merry” without her husband’s consent, nor were the rich man’s daughters free to control their own lives. Thus, the rich man of the parable was planning to enjoy a success to which only men had access.
Jesus cast submission and service in specifically feminine terms. God was the “bridegroom” and men and women collectively “the bride.” For males to be in the position of the human bride to God’s bridegroom, they needed to stop superintending their wealth, give their possessions away, and stop working for their basic needs. As long as men tried to be a “bridegroom” themselves, they were lost and damned. Jesus instructed his disciples to engage in loving service to God much like the way the woman with the alabaster ointment serviced him. For the woman, service was washing and anointing the feet of Jesus. In the case of the apostles, service was waiting for God’s grace. It was only by giving up specifically male ambitions that they could hope to love God as completely as God demanded and thereby avoid the violence of God’s judgment.[ix]

Jesus elaborates on this theme in Luke 16:19-26 with another parable about a rich man whose wealth blocks his path to heaven:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Here, the rich man is condemned because he was “clothed in purple and fine linen,” “fared sumptuously every day,” and “receivedst thy good things.” In contrast, the beggar Lazarus, whose degraded form Jesus describes in detail, seems to be embraced by Abraham because he suffered. Jesus explains that Lazarus was not only covered with sores, but his sores were licked by dogs. Lazarus resembled an inert carcass, in a state of living death—unable to provide for himself, completely dependent on others, unable even to keep the dogs off of him. Like the woman with the alabaster ointment and the Syro-Phoenician woman, Lazarus’ suffering favored him for redemption in a way that was impossible for the wealthy. Because he was unable to act as a “man” and either earn his living or enjoy possessions, nothing impeded his relationship and service to God while those men who found comfort in the world were doomed to the flames. “Woe unto you that are rich for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6: 24)
Similarly, in Mark 10:17 Jesus shares the story of a rich young man who asked him, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” The young man, when questioned, explained that he followed all of God’s commandments. Jesus then said, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me (Mark 10:21).” Unable to part with his possession, the young man sadly left Jesus. That he decided to keep his wealth rather than give it to the poor indicated that he put more “trust” in or received more “comfort” from his wealth than he did from God. The same was the case with the rich man in purple. Wealth is a burden preventing individuals from entering heaven. And, it was the response of this young man that inspired Jesus to make his famous denunciation, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Ultimately, Jesus condemned the possession of property because it both controlled the labor of men and women, and focused attention on mammon rather than heaven.

Jesus not only attacked property by promising eternal damnation to the rich, he chased the vendors out of the Temple almost immediately upon entering Jerusalem. Angry that merchants and money-changers had turned his house into “a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17), Jesus overturned their tables and drove them out of the temple before beginning to preach. Jesus perceived the Pharisees as greedy for wealth in the form of the “temple tax,” or tithe paid by Jews both in Judea and abroad, rather than the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” that should have been the focus of their piety. Even the religious authorities valued mammon at the expense of God. After this incident, the chief priests and scribes renewed their plotting to kill Jesus. The text of Matthew implies that they were seeking to execute Jesus in the name of a general commitment to wealth—the wealth of the religious establishment - but also the wealth of any male head of family who had accumulated property through his own labor or superintending the labor of others.[x] Consequently, when the religious authorities had Jesus arrested after he drove the money changers out of the temple, they were acting on behalf of all men of wealth and property as well as religious orthodoxy.

As strong as his attacks on wealth and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus assaulted family ties, particularly the patriarchal father/son bond, even more powerfully. Like the pursuit of wealth or status, attention paid to familial responsibilities threatened an individual’s devotion to God. As a result, Jesus continually reminded his followers and potential followers to abandon their families and follow him. Jesus demanded of those working for their fathers, like James and John, to leave immediately. He instructed followers to abandon funeral preparations, refused to let them say good-bye to families, and cautioned them to forget any affection they held for anyone other than himself and God. Because of this, Jesus expected the families of his followers to seek revenge on their children for leaving, and on Jesus for taking them away. Indeed, the violence and retaliation Jesus expected from families shaped his conception of his future suffering and ultimate execution. In this sense, Jesus both precipitated and anticipated the revenge of the fathers against the son(s).

The first indication of Jesus’ attitude toward family bonds occurs at the beginning of his ministry when he gathers his disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).” James and John immediately leave their father Zebedee’s fishing boat in the middle of mending nets. James and John were under their father’s authority in the family fishing enterprise, and their labor was most likely an important part of the father’s success. One or both of them would have been heir to their father’s property as well. In calling the men away, Jesus superseded their father’s authority. For Jesus, obligation and love were zero-sum games. If the men felt called to follow Jesus, they had to leave Zebedee, and leave him “immediately,” disregarding any claim Zebedee might have on them. Jesus allowed no compromise for James and John to ease Zebedee’s burden. Similarly, if the disciples were to love Jesus, they must withdraw love for their father, giving Zebedee no notice and making no departing gesture of any kind.[xi]
The family ties of his followers and potential followers posed two kinds of problems for Jesus. First, family connections resembled property in that they created attachments that hindered men and women from devoting themselves fully to God. In some cases, family connections also served as a form of social capital (or wealth) stored up and spent in this world not in the afterlife. Second, love felt for families competed with the love for Jesus and God. For Jesus, a proper love for God emerged from an understanding of oneself as a sinner, bereft and debased. In contrast, familial love is a sticky web of mutually reinforcing blood ties involving such expectations as care of the sick, fraternal love, cooperation in the household, and loyalties along hierarchical lines. These expectations and responsibilities must be rejected to fully serve God.

For example, in Matthew 10: 34, Jesus proclaims:

I came not to send peace but a sword, for I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”
Again, love for Jesus requires withdrawing love from families. This is the sword rather than splits man from father and daughter from mother. In Matthew, love for Jesus takes absolute priority over all other relations, shocking families such that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Luke 9 reiterates this message when Jesus encounters a man who wants to follow him but also wants to return home to bid farewell to those at his house. Jesus replies that “no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is it fit for the kingdom of God.”
In Luke 14, Jesus gives the prioritizes God over family with a particularly harsh twist:
“if any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.[xii]

Here, Jesus not only demands that men withdraw themselves from their families, but makes hatred of their families the standard by which he judges the legitimacy of their commitment to him. Jesus expresses a similar belief that families would seek revenge on his followers in Luke 21 when he tells his followers that “ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” [xiii] Withdrawal of love, the advocation to hate one’s relatives and, more significantly, withdrawal from participation in kinship exchanges, casts the relatives of the followers of Jesus into enemies.

In Matthew 10: 34-38, love is portrayed as a mutual relationship in which the parties adapt several roles and exchange many kinds of things. A man can be simultaneously a son who loves a father, a husband who loves a wife, and a father who loves a son. Indeed, Jesus portrays families as webs of different kinds of love in which a wide variety of mutual services, gestures, tokens of affection, and rituals are exchanged and in which a wide variety of meaningful events are shared (weddings, funerals, births, coming of age ceremonies, etc.). When a man or woman comes to love Jesus, the new follower takes him or herself out of the web of family involvement. Perhaps more importantly, the new disciple ceases to function and experience himself or herself as “father,” “mother,” “brother,” and “sister.” Jesus himself emphasized that he no longer considered his mother Mary to be his mother or his brother to be “brethren.” His viewed his “family” only in terms of those involved with him in his ministry. Thus, family members have a strong motive to perceive Jesus as a threat.

Unlike religious authority and wealth, men did not have a monopoly over family affections. Consequently, fathers, husbands, and brothers would not have been the only people who had reason to despise Jesus for breaking up their families. Sisters, mothers, aunts, and daughters-in-law would have had reason to hate Jesus as well. Nevertheless, the New Testament provides evidence that Jesus focused his attack on families on fathers, in particular, and males more generally. For example, when young man asked to attend his father’s burial before joining him, Jesus coldly replied “let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). Here, Jesus not only expressed a casual contempt for the unconverted (and therefore “the dead”), but a thorough-going derision of any loyalties, respect, reverence, or attachment—in other words, love-- that the young man would have had for his father.[xiv]
Further, Jesus preached against many of the behaviors by which males sought to defend their family’s interest and honor. In patriarchal societies like ancient Judea, the “honor” of the family reflects the honor of the male head of the household. Upholding the family “honor” entailed avenging insults and assaults on the family as well as maintaining and increasing a family’s property and social standing. Jesus forbade such practices, especially an ethic of revenge, in the Sermon on the Mount. He instructed followers to “resist not evil,” “bless them that curse you,” and “turn the other cheek.” In this, Jesus implicitly condemned any kind of revenge on those who attacked either them or other members of their families. Moreover, by insisting that men give those who sued them more than is asked, Jesus also denied the efforts of heads of households (who would have been the only ones to have the right to sue) to defend their families economic interests.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges people to stop judging others, to strive even to love not just their “neighbors” but their “enemies” as well. Neighbors, enemies, family members, fathers and brothers, Jesus leveled the playing field saying no relationship was more important than the other, and none so important as one’s relationship to God. Thus, Jesus insisted that men treat their enemies and the enemies of their families as well as they treated their wives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers, if not, they traveled the broad way that “leadeth to destruction.” In this sense, the imprecations of Jesus against families applied especially to the men who had the right, duty, and privilege to defend the interests and honor of families. As a result, Jesus would reasonably have expected the vengeance of families on his followers to come primarily from the men.[xv]

As fathers and the heads of households, males also would have been the ones who represented the interests of the family in seeking revenge on Jesus. In John 17, Jesus emphasized that “thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.” In a similar way, human fathers were “in” their wives, sons, daughters, and mothers in the sense that all of their actions reflected on the father as the head of the household in a patriarchal society. Likewise, wives, sons, daughters, and mothers were “in” male heads of households to the extent that their prominence and social standing derived from the prestige of the father. Consequently, any family betrayal directly impacted the social standing of the father as the head of the household who was also responsible for reporting misdeeds to local religious authorities. While mothers, daughters, and sisters would experience betrayal and loss, they did not have the authority or responsibility to act publicly. Because the families were the strongest principle of competition for the love that Jesus sought to direct toward himself, Jesus expected families, particularly male heads of households, to be the most implacable agents of revenge on him and those who followed him.

The Apostles
The twelve male disciples were a discouraging test case for Jesus’ doctrine. He had personally recruited and taught them, performed miracles of healing and exorcism that demonstrated his divine powers, and gave each the power to heal and cast out demons. However, the male disciples struggled to understand and adopt Jesus’ doctrine, especially his prophecies of his own death and resurrection. Like the Pharisees, the male disciples focused on their own reputations and prestige. Rather than adopting the model of loving service exemplified in the story of the woman with the alabaster ointment, or finding sanctity in being the “least” among men and serving others, the male disciples sought to inflate their own importance through their association with Jesus in the same way that the Pharisees sought to magnify their importance through observance of the Law. They boasted that they would protect Jesus from his fate, argued repeatedly among themselves about who should be “greatest,” and petitioned Jesus to be allowed to sit by his side. Proud, ambitious, greedy, confused and fearful through Jesus’ arrest, execution and resurrection, the male disciples chose masculinity over Jesus.
The image of Simon and Andrew leaving their nets when Jesus calls them to be “fishers of men,’ powerfully demostrates that they recognized some spark of divinity in Jesus. And, while the disciples called Jesus as Master, Lord, Savior, Teacher and Christ, they also frequently expressed doubt about Jesus’ identity. The apostles’ doubt and fear become more visible as Jesus’ execution draws closer. Early in his ministry, as Matthew details, Jesus served as a kind of strolling healer of the sick and exorciser of demons. “And his fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with diverse diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic . . . and he healed them.” (Matthew 4:24) Peter, Andrew, John, James, and other disciples accompanying Jesus on his journey witnessed many miracles and heard Jesus preach “the kingdom of god” to “great multitudes.” Jesus even cured Priscilla, the wife of Peter of a menstrual bleeding illness, which at the time would have been not only physically debilitating to Priscilla, but also socially isolating to both Peter and Priscilla as a couple. Jewish law dictated that menstruating women were unclean while menstruating and for seven days after. In spite of repeated exposure to Jesus’ teachings to have faith in him in all things, the disciples were quick to doubt. For example, the disciples feared for their lives when a violent storm broke as they crossed the Sea of Galilee. Jesus rebuked them for this, “Why do you fear, o ye of little faith.” And, when Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples still “marvelled . . . that even the winds and the sea obey him.”
After this, Jesus performed even greater miracles. He shared his powers to heal the sick and cast out devils with his chief male disciples and dozens of other followers so that they could begin their own missions to the cities of Palestine. He walked on water and provided food for five thousand people out of seven loaves of bread and some fish. Finally, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where he was transfigured into a celestial being with the prophets Moses and Elijah flanking him. At the same time, each heightened manifestations of his divinity illuminated some weakness of faith in the disciples. When Jesus appeared beside their boat walking on the water, he invited Peter to come out with him, but ended up chiding him for lack of faith when Peter’s doubts caused him to begin sinking. Similarly, even though they observed Jesus feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, the male disciples still worried when food suppies ran low. Jesus rebuked them: “Do ye not understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up: Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?” Unless they were actually witnessing a miracle, the male disciples doubted Jesus’ sovreignity.

In another example, male disciples illustrated a failure of faith in Jesus when they were unable cure an insane boy. Jesus explained this: “Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matthew 17:20) Jesus perceived the disciples’ lack of faith in their ability to cure diseases and cast out devils to stem from their lack of faith in his divinity, a failure Jesus felt exemplified the faithlessness of a whole generation. “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?” (Matthew 17:17)

The apostles did acknowledge Jesus’ divinity. When Jesus asked what he was, Peter readily answered, “The Christ, the Son of the Living God.” As a reward for this deminstration of faith, Jesus promised that Peter would be the rock on which Jesus’ church would be built. (Matthew 16: 16-19). However, the male disciples used the proclamation of Jesus’ divinity as an opportunity for them to cash in on the social capital they received from their association with Jesus. In Matthew, the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask her sons to be allowed to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John themselves petitioned Jesus. The spirit of ambition gripped the other disciples as well. Arguments about which one among the disciples was greatest continued even the evening Jesus was arrested. In a way, Peter was the most obstreperous and uncomprehending, arguing with Jesus that he would save him, and later bragging during the last supper that he would die with Jesus if he were condemned to death. The disciples acted much like the Pharisees by valuing prestige, power, and their connections in direct opposition to Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, in response to Peter’s claims that Jesus would not be allowed to die, Jesus addressed Peter in the same language he used against the Pharisees. “Get thee behind me Satan: thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (Matthew 16: 23)

Jesus used the ambitions of the male disciples as “teaching moments” in which he defined the kingdom of God in terms of humility and suffering. Overhearing the disciples arguing among themselves over who was greatest, (Mark 9: 32, 35), Jesus taught that those who should desire to be “first” would end up “last.” Jesus stressed that his “kingdom” was not like Rome, “the great” did not exercise authority over the others. Rather, the “chiefest” of the disciples would be “servant of all.” (Mark 10:44) To this end, Jesus encouraged his followers to model the open attitude of children. He said: “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of god as a little child shall not enter therein.” Jesus stressed that he himself came to minister to or serve others and give his life as a ransom.

However, the chief male disciples struggled to internalize this message of humility and service. When Jesus pronounced the doctrine of his death and resurrection, the male disciples routinely expressed their confusion and lack of comprehension. When Jesus announced upon his entrance to Jerusalem that he would “be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and spitefully entreated, and spitted on . . . and they shall scourge him, and put him to death and the third day he shall rise again,” the disciples “understood none of these things.” (Luke 18: 31-34) Their confusion continued through the last Supper and beyond. During this meal Jesus explained that he would soon die, a sacrifice for the sake of them all, and, further, that one of them at the table would betray him. Jesus broke the bread and declared that the bread was his body “which is given for [the disciples] and then after the supper took the cup of wine and stated that the cup was “the new testament of my blood which is shed for you.” There’s a strong sense in which this was the crucible for the male disciples. Would they grasp the message of Jesus as a god who sacrificed himself for them and demanded that they sacrifice themselves by taking up their crosses as well? Or would they demonstrate a greater faith in the things of men and the world as they had many times before?

And, at this tipping point, they reverted to displays of material prestige and social power. After inquiring who would betray Jesus, the disciples began to argue “which of them should be accounted the greatest.” This was too much for Jesus who spent the rest of the supper desperately haranguing the men. First, Jesus discussed how “he that is chief” would be serving others rather than having others serve him much as Jesus the Son of God served them. “I am among you as he that serveth.” He spoke with Peter about his hope that he would “strengthen thy brethren” after he was converted. Peter responded with proud blustering about how he would go to prison or death with Jesus, a monologue Jesus interrupted by revealing that Peter would deny him three times before morning. Finally, Jesus reminded the men that he had once sent them forth without “purse and scrip and shoes,” and encouraged them now to take their scrip and buy a sword. When the men produced two swords of their own as if they were going to fight, Jesus finally proclaimed “it is enough” and left the room altogether.

In Luke, when Jesus went into the Garden of Olives, all the disciples except Judas followed him, and they stood a stone’s throw off as he prayed in “agony . . . and his sweat as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground.” The best analogy to the agony Jesus experienced was that characterized by the woman with the alabaster ointment, lepers, beggars, and the dying men and women that Jesus had healed during his ministry. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus felt the weight of pollution, ostracism, betrayal, or impending pain and death that had characterized all those he healed and humankind more generally. According to scripture, Jesus was preparing to meet his fate to become the least of the least, a condemned and crucified criminal. While Jesus prayed that, “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me (Luke 22:42),” the disciples slept even though he had asked them to stand watch over him. While Judas Iscariot directly betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and the Temple guard, the other disciples demonstrated a profound thickheadedness about Jesus’ primary teachings. They acted oblivious to Jesus’ suffering, and thus oblivious to his doctrine. When the disciples abandoned him after his arrest, they demonstrated that they valued their own lives as men over the faith in the redemptive sacrifice that Jesus had taught them. They also left him bereft and isolated as he faced the power of the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman administration.

According to biblical accounts, the male disciples avoided Jesus (except for John in the Gospel of John) until he appeared to them in his resurrection. They were not in the crowd that urged Pilate to spare Barabbas and execute Jesus, nor did they follow Jesus to the cross, bear witness while he was crucified, visit the tomb, or believe in his resurrection when informed by Mary Magdalene and other women. Jesus had taught that “whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” (Luke 17:33) If they had embraced Jesus’ doctrine, the male disciples would have died with Jeus.

Only the women among Jesus’ followers accompanied him as he was being marched to execution and stayed with him during his crucifixion. The key to the betrayal and abandonment of the male disciples was their loyalty to male privilege. Torn between Jesus’ message and social prestige, wealth, and family, Peter, James, John, and the other male disciples chose their allegiances as men over their faith in Jesus. For Jesus, the followers around him were his family. The fact that his closest male disciples chose the priorities of men over Jesus was just as much a mortification of his person as his arrest, interrogation, scourging at the hands of the Romans, and crucifixion on the cross. Because their primary commitment was to the male privileges of social prestige, authority, and religious sanctity, the male disciples rejected the concept of divinity taught to them by Jesus and then abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Like the Pharisees and other religious authorities, the most prominent male disciples represented the interests of all men as they played their parts in the killing of Jesus. .

The ministry of Jesus challenged the patriarchal super structure of the time, assaulting male and class identity and privilege. As a result, Jesus made enemies of those men whose privileges he condemned as opposing the kingdom of God. This includes the fathers of his disciples he recruited away from family enterprises, men who possessed wealth and property, all those men who sought to uphold male honor through the ethic of revenge, the Pharisees and Scribes who enforced the religious laws, the high priests who managed the financial enterprises of the Temple, and the Roman authorities who counted on their subjects to pursue their self-interest.
Jesus viewed concern with social status, wealth and family as attachments to the world which prevented people from devotion to god. Because of this, Jesus offered blistering criticisms of the Pharisees, scribes, priests, and the wealthy. He then generalized the principles behind these criticisms to prescribe other kinds of male behavior like labor, property accumulation, and revenge. Jesus was also implacable in his demands that the men who followed him abandon their families. And to lend the utmost in practical consequences to his warnings, Jesus threatened his targets with the constant specter of hellfire and damnation.

Men killed Jesus because he attacked three core areas of male privilege—religious authority, property, and family. This male privilege perpetuated itself through a capital of external wealth, social respect, and self-esteem. As a result, when various descriptions of men—the Pharisees, scribes, temple priests, temple soldiers, Roman authorities, and Roman soldiers—killed Jesus, they did so in the name of all men. Even Jesus’ disciples were implicated deeply in the crucifixion. Judas betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities, Peter denied Jesus three times, and the rest of Jesus twelve closest male followers seemed to abandon him in his hour of need. When faced with the choice of joining Jesus in martyrdom or adhering to the world of male privilege, the male disciples all chose male privilege and patriarchy. The only followers who stayed with Jesus through his death were women like Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene and indeed it was women who were privileged to receive the first news of the resurrection. Where the male followers ultimately identified with the general male interest in killing Jesus, his female followers were in a better position to grasp the message of resurrection. Perhaps the men who killed Jesus did so in the name of all men.

[i]Luke 7: 44-46, The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with Psalms and Proverbs, Commonly known as the Authorized (King James Version), National Publishing, 1968. All subsequent New Testament citations from same edition.
[ii]Matthew 5:3; Matthew 23: 11-12; John 13: 4-5.
[iii]Matthew 23: 5-7; Luke 6: 25; Luke 7:47. In Luke 18, Jesus makes a similar comparison between a Pharisee and a tax collector. For popularity of Pharisees, see Timothy A. Friedrichsen, The Temple, a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring2005, Vol. 124, Issue 1, 109-110.
[iv]For efforts by the Pharisees to extent dietary prescriptions, see

[v]Matthew 23: 11-12.
[vi]Luke 12:16-21.
[vii]Luke 6: 24-25; Matthew 6: 24;
[viii]Luke 12:22; Matthew 6: 25-30; Luke 12:38.
[ix]Matthew 9:15.
[x]Luke 8: 31-37; Matthew 23: 14, 23.
[xi]Matthew 4:21.
[xii]Luke 14:25.
[xiii]Luke 21: 16-17
[xiv]Luke 9: 60.

[xv]Matthew 5: 39-44; Matthew 7: 1-2, 13-14.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is Feminism Dead?

Is feminism dead?
Posted by Courtney E. Martin
27 November 2007

What picture pops into your mind when you read the word feminist? Is it a woman layered in petticoats with a big, swooping hat, picketing the white house for her right to vote? Is it Gloria Steinem in her aviator glasses, sleek, straight hair hanging down both sides of her pretty face?

These are the dominant images that so many people associate with feminist history, and for good reason. The first image—the suffragist—represents the so-called “first wave” of feminist history. These women, philosophizing and organizing, from the late 1800s through the 1930s, were primarily focused on legal and institutional changes that would allow women to gain more power and autonomy.

The “second wave,” then, was most active in the 1960s and 1970s, and was concerned with social and psychological liberation (think dishes, contraception, and objectification). This era is best explained by its most effective slogan: the personal is the political. (Disclaimer: This, of course, is only a modern western history I’m referring to. Feminism has taken all kinds of triumphant and fascinating forms in other parts of the world, at other times.)

But what about now? Is feminism, as Time magazine and other short-sighted publications like to claim, dead?

Well of course not. My vibrant community of feminist friends and I are, last time I checked, breathing. Our hearts are pumping new feminist blood. Our minds—the most educated in history—are formulating visions of what feminism can and will be in the twenty-first century.
We are sometimes called “third wave,” though perhaps it could even be argued we are the fourth, after our Gen X older sisters and mentors (women like Deborah Siegel, Daisy Hernandez, Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, Sarah Jones, etc.).

My vision of feminism is defined by three major components: educated choice, genuine equality, and radical authenticity. Ask my friend Jessica or my pal Daniel and you will get slightly different answers, but you can bet that we’ll all be talking in the same general language and in the same philosophical country.

Educated choice: Both men and women need to have access to choices and, even more, they need to have the tools necessary to make good choices. It is not enough to just say that women should have access to abortions, for example. They also need to know all of their options and feel like they have a full understanding of the health risks and quality of life issues that each entails; they also need to have the economic provisions to make whichever choice fits their lives and values best.

Genuine Equality: We all deserve the same opportunities, the same access. This is a pretty straight forward concept in theory, but in practice, it is hellishly complicated. Take something like U.S. college admissions. Sure anyone can apply to Harvard, but not everyone comes from a family that can pay for an SAT tutor or has the cultural capital to encourage college. Until the U.S., and other western industrialized countries, recognize the way that networks and subtle class/race/gender dynamics influence supposedly non-discriminatory institutions, our work will not be done.

Radical authenticity: This facet of feminism gets talked about far too little in my opinion. A visionary twenty-first century feminism should aim to support both men and women to be their most authentic selves in the world, shedding prescribed gender roles and really getting in touch with their authentic desires, passions, and ethics. Feminist workplaces, for example, would nurture both men and women having present relationships with their children and fulfilling work lives. Men should be empowered to express a complex range of emotions, just as women must learn how to handle conflict healthily and assertively and take care of themselves, not just everyone else.

The most exciting thing about feminism, is that it is ultimately about leading more fulfilling, ethical, joyful lives, characterized by more healthy and genuine relationships. Who could argue with that?

What Feminism Isn't

Ugly, boring and angry?
Posted by Courtney E. Martin

As I travel across the country speaking about feminist issues I like to take a quick survey of the audiences. I ask them “What are the stereotypes you’ve heard about feminists?”After a few timid moments, folks start shouting a flood of unsavory characteristics: ugly, bitchy, man-hating, boring, angry, bra-burning.

The wild thing is that whether I am in a lecture hall in Jacksonville, Illinois, or a woman’s club in suburban New Jersey, or an immigration center in Queens, New York, whether I am among 15 year-olds, or 25 year-olds, or 60 year-olds, whether the crowd of faces that I see are mostly white, or mostly of color, or a welcome mix of all—this list tends to be almost identical.

I tell those in the audiences as much, and then I ask, “So how did all of you—from such vastly different backgrounds—get the exactly same stereotypes about feminism? Why would feminism be so vilified?”And to this they usually shrug their shoulders.

I believe that feminism has attracted so many unsavory stereotypes because of its profound power and potential. It has gained such a reputation, been so inaccurately demonized, because it promises to upset one of the foundations on which this world, its corporations, its families, and its religions are based—gender roles.

If you asked diverse audiences to give you stereotypes about Protestantism, for example, you would have some groups that starred at you blank-faced and some that might have a jab or two.

If you asked about the history of civil rights, even, you would get a fairly innocuous, probably even partly accurate sense of the progress afforded by sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests. But you ask about feminism and the whole room erupts with media-manufactured myths, passed down from generation to generation. Some of these stereotypes can be traced to events or controversial figures in the women’s movement, though they are still perversions. That whole bra-burning thing came out of the 1968 Miss America protests in which feminists paraded one another around like cattle to show the dehumanizing effects of beauty pageants, but they didn’t actually burn any bras.

There have surely been some feminists who despised men and advocated for female-only spaces; others have undoubtedly resorted to an angry m.o.; there were probably even a few shabby dressers (though, I have to tell you, us third-wave gals tend to be pretty snappy).
More recently one of the most pervasive misperceptions about what feminism purports to do is actually perpetuated by strong, intelligent women; I refer to the mistaken belief that feminism is solely about achievement, competition, and death-defying acrobatics (sometimes called multitasking). I like to think of this as “shoulder-pad feminism”—the do it all, all at once circus act that so many of my friends and I witnessed growing up in households headed by superwomen.

The ugly truth about superwomen, my generation has come to realize, is that they tend to be exhausted, self-sacrificing, unsatisfied, and sometimes even self-loathing and sick. Feminism—and the progress it envisions—was never supposed to compromise women’s health. It was supposed to lead to richer, more enlightened, authentic lives characterized by a deep sense of wellness.

Feminism in its most glorious, transformative, inclusive sense, is not about man-hating, nor is it about superwomen. For what it is, come back tomorrow…

Monday, November 19, 2007

Getting Off--An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen.

King of the Hill

The object of the children's game King of the Hill is to be the one who remains on top of the hill (or, if not an actual hill, a large pile of anything or the center of any designated area). To do that, one has to repel those who challenge the king's supremacy. The king has to push away all the other kids who charge the hill. That can be done in a friendly spirit with an understanding that a minimal amount of force will be used by all, or it can be violent and vicious, with both the king and the challengers allowed to use any means necessary. Games that start with such a friendly understanding can often turn violent and vicious. This scenario is also used in some video games, in which a player tries to control a specific area for a predetermined amount of time.

In my experience, both male and female children can, and did, play King of the Hill, but it was overwhelmingly a game of male children. It's one of the games that train male children to be men. No matter who is playing, it is a game of masculinity. King of the Hill reveals one essential characteristic of the dominant conception of masculinity: No one is ever safe, and everyone loses something.

Most obviously, this King-of-the-Hill masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek to control "their" women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is toxic for men as well.

One thing is immediately obvious about King-of-the-Hill masculinity: Not everyone can win. In fact, by definition in this conception of masculinity, there's only one real man at any given moment. In a system based on hierarchy, by definition there can be only one person at the top of the hierarchy. There's only one King of the Hill.

In this conception of masculinity, men are in constant struggle with each other for dominance. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, but even the king can't feel too comfortable -- he has to be nervous about who is coming up that hill to get him. This isn't just a game, of course. A friend who once worked on Wall Street, one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition in the business world, described coming to work as like "walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken." Every day you faced the possibility of getting killed -- figuratively, in business terms -- and there was no spot you could stand where your back was covered. This is masculinity lived as endless competition and threat. Whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it's also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.

No one man created this system. Perhaps no man, if given a real choice, would choose it. But we live our lives in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth, and limiting our capacity to experience the rich connections with others -- not just with women and children, but with other men -- which require vulnerability but make life meaningful. The Man Who Would Be King is the Man Who Is Broken and Alone.

That toxic masculinity hurts men doesn't mean it's equally dangerous for men and women. As feminists have long pointed out, there's a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry. But we can see that the short-term material gains that men get in patriarchy -- the name for this system of male dominance -- are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul, which is to surrender part of our humanity to the project of dominance.
This doesn't mean, of course, that in this world all men have it easy. Other systems of dominance and oppression -- white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism -- mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men suffer in various ways. A feminist analysis doesn't preclude us from understanding those problems but in fact helps us see them more clearly.

What feminism is and isn't to me

Each fall in my seminar class for first-year students at the University of Texas, I lead a discussion about gender politics that will sound familiar to many teachers. I ask the students about their opinions about various gender issues, such as equal pay, sexual harassment, men's violence, and gender roles. Most of the women and some of the men express views that would be called feminist. But when I ask how many identify as feminists, out of the 15 students in any semester, no more than three (always women) have ever claimed the label. When I ask why, the typical answers are not about the political positions of feminism but the perception that feminism is weird and that weird people are feminists.

This pattern is no doubt connected to the assault on feminism in the mainstream culture, captured most succinctly in the phrase "femi-nazi" made popular by right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. One response to this by some feminists has been to find a least-common-denominator definition of the term, to reassure both men and women that feminism doesn't really aim to undermine established gender norms and isn't threatening to men. I believe that to be the wrong strategy. If feminism is to make a meaningful difference in the sex/gender crisis we face, and contribute to a broader social change so desperately needed, I believe it must be clear in its challenge to the existing order -- and that inevitably will be threatening to many men, at least at first. Feminism, then, should get more radical than ever.

In general, the term "radical" conjures up images of extremes, of danger, of people eager to tear things down. But radical has another meaning -- from the Latin, for root. Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem. When the systems in which we live are in crisis, the most honest confrontations with those systems have to be radical. At first glance, that honesty will seem frightening. Looking deeper, it is the radical ideas that offer hope, a way out of the crisis.

Because these ideas are denigrated in the dominant culture, it's important to define them. By feminist, I mean an analysis of the ways in which women are oppressed as a class in this society -- the ways in which men as a class hold more power, and how those differences in power systematically disadvantage women in the public and private spheres. Gender oppression plays out in different ways depending on social location, which makes it crucial to understand men's oppression of women in connection with other systems of oppression -- heterosexism, racism, class privilege, and histories of colonial and postcolonial domination.

By radical feminist, I mean the analysis of the ways that in this patriarchal system in which we live, one of the key sites of this oppression -- one key method of domination -- is sexuality. Two of the most well-known women who articulated a radical feminist view have been central to the feminist critique of pornography -- the writer Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer and law professor. The feminist philosophy and politics that have shaped my thinking are most clearly articulated by those two and others with similar views.

What I also learned from this radical feminism is not just a way of critiquing men's domination of women but a broader approach to understanding systems of power and oppression. Feminism is not the only way into a broader critique of the many types of oppression, of course, but it is one important way, and was for me the first route into such a framework. My real political education started on the issue of gender and from there moved to issues of racial and economic injustice, the imperialist wars that flow out of that injustice, and the ecological crisis. Each system of power and oppression is unique in its own way, but there are certain features in common. Here's my summary:

How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, engaging in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and with relish. Feminism helped me understand the complex process, which tends to work like this:

The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.

Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.

People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.

But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.

Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.

One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are "natural."

So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy -- and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy -- is natural and, therefore, beyond modification.

If men are naturally smarter and stronger than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic injustice is inevitable and justifiable. And, if human beings have special status in the universe, justified either on theological or biological grounds, then humans' right to extract from the rest of Creation whatever they like is inevitable and


For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their own naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology.

For me, feminism gave me a way to see through not only male dominance, but all the systems of illegitimate authority. I saw the fundamental strategy they held in common, and saw that if we could more into a space in which we were true to our stated ideals, we would reject those systems as anti-human. All these systems cause suffering beyond the telling. All of them must be resisted. The connections between them must be understood.

Enforcing masculinity

Systems of oppression are interlocked and enmeshed; perhaps the classic example is the way in which white men identify black men as a threat to the sexual purity of white women, requiring white men to maintain control of both black people and white women. While keeping in mind those connections, we can train our attention on how each individual power system operates.

This book attempts such a focus on masculinity. The King-of-the-Hill Masculinity I have described is articulated and enforced in a variety of places in contemporary culture, most notably athletics, the military, and business, with underpinnings in the dominant monotheistic religions. We can look at all those arenas and see how masculinity-as-dominance plays out. In all those endeavors, the quality of relationships and human values become secondary to control that leads to victory, conquest, and closing the deal.

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture's most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

Look around in the contemporary United States, and masculinity is paraded in front of us, sometimes in displays that border on self-parody:

George W. Bush dons a flight suit and lands on an aircraft carrier; the self-proclaimed "war president" announces victory (albeit somewhat prematurely). John Kerry, fearing a masculinity gap, serves up a hunting photo-op in the 2004 campaign to show that not only does he have combat experience that Bush lacks but still likes to fire a weapon.

Arnold Schwarzenegger moves from action-movie hero to governor of California, denigrating opponents he deems insufficiently tough as "girly men."

Donald Trump, a businessman famous mostly for being famous and attracting conventionally attractive female partners, boosts a sagging public image with "The Apprentice" television show that pits young wannabe executives against each other in cutthroat competition.

And then there is sex, where victory, conquest, and dealing come together, typically out of public view. Masculinity played out in sexual relationships, straight or gay, brings King of the Hill into our most intimate spaces. Again, this doesn't mean that every man in every sexual situation plays out this dominance, but simply that there exists a pattern. When I speak to mixed groups about these subjects, I often describe the sex-as-dominance paradigm, and then I ask the women in the room if they have any experience with men behaving in such fashion.

There is considerable rolling of the eyes and many exasperated sighs at that point. I present it in light-hearted fashion because to put it too harshly makes most mixed audiences very nervous.

And then there is pornography, where brings the private imposition of masculinity into public, putting King-of-the-Hill sex onto the screen.

Pornography's whisper to men

We think of the call of pornography as crass, like a carnival barker's. Like the neon lights of Times Square in its pornographic heyday. Men go to buy pornography in the "red-light" district, the "combat zone." Pornography seems to shout out at us, crudely.

But in reality, pornography speaks to men in a whisper. We pretend to listen to the barker shouting about women, but that is not the draw. What brings us back, over and over, is the voice in our ears, the soft voice that says, "It's OK, you really are a man, you really can be a man, and if you come into my world, it will all be there, and it will all be easy."

Pornography knows men's weakness. It speaks to that weakness, softly. Pornography ends up being about men's domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: That we aren't man enough.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Robert Jensen, Getting Off

Pornography and the End of Masculinity
By Don Hazen, AlterNet. Posted September 22, 2007.
Mainstream porn has come up with more ways than ever to humiliate and degrade women. Why then, is porn more popular? Includes an excerpt from Robert Jensen's new book, Getting Off.

In his new book, Robert Jensen forces the reader to face the music about the effects of a porn industry gone gonzo and the need to reassess the trappings of masculinity as the source of increased violence against and degradation of women.

I have always been part of the collective liberal progressive libertarian value system that accepts pornography as a legitimate expression of the First Amendment. Part of that thinking is that women participate in porn films of their own free will and that porn often represents fantasies -- though sometimes quasiviolent or degrading -- that people actually have. So as long as people are merely acting in porn films and there is no coercion, or law-breaking, it is acceptable.

But I've changed my mind. No, I'm not a prude, or anti-sex. Nor do I think there should be a national campaign to snuff out all porn. In fact, I sometimes watch certain kinds of porn. But what has become clear to me is that, under the guise of the First Amendment, a huge and powerful porn industrial complex has grown out of control. And a big part of its growth is fueled, not just by the internet, but by continually upping the ante, increasing the extremes of degradation for the women in tens of thousands of films made every year. I am convinced, although it is, of course, difficult to document, that the huge audiences for porn and the pervasiveness of the themes and behaviors of degradation are having a negative impact on the way men behave and the way society treats women.

Sexism and attitudes toward women were supposed to have gotten better after the 1960s and the feminist movement. The sons of boomers were going to be different. And while perhaps that is true in some cases, what we have instead is more violence against women and more social acceptance of demeaning male attitudes and behaviors that would have been considered out of bounds 20 or 30 years ago. As a society, we've gone backwards.

Part of my thinking on pornography has been shaped by seeing what is on the internet myself, and part, by reading Robert Jensen's powerful and provocative book, excerpted below: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Jensen has convinced me that something as powerful as the porn industry and its sexual extremism must not be kept under the rug due to liberal shoulder-shrugging about the First Amendment. The porn industry should not enjoy our collective denial in terms of its real-world impact on women -- and men -- simply because we might be berated by First Amendment purists or be uncomfortable grappling with complex issues of sexual expression.

The debate must be pushed, and the consciousness raised. Many will say, don't mess with the issue because it's a slippery slope and could lead to the repression of other freedoms. I've concluded we need to take that chance. Male attitudes are potentially being shaped by ugly and sometimes disgusting abuse toward women. And tens of thousands of young women are being seduced and intimidated into lives of extreme public humiliation on-screen. The impact on their lives over the long run could be devastating.

The advent of Gonzo
One phenomenon in porn is the ascension of Gonzo films. There are two styles of films -- one are features that mimic, however badly, the Hollywood model of plot and characters. But the other, Gonzo, has no pretensions, and is simply the filming of sex acts, which, Jensen writes, while also occurring in features, are "performed in rougher fashion, often with more than one man involved, and more explicitly degrading language, which marks women as sluts, whores, cunts, nasty bitches and so on."

The Gonzo films, which have come to dominate the industry, also emphasize the newer trend of sexual acts, which include: double penetration -- anal and vaginal -- and ass to mouth, or ATM, where anal sex is followed by sticking the penis in the women's mouth. In addition, many of these films include men, often in multiple numbers, ejaculating into the faces and mouths of the women performers. The women usually swallow the semen, but also can share it mouth-to-mouth with a female partner. For Jensen, the most plausible explanation of the popularity of these acts is that women in the world, outside of pornography, don't engage in these acts unless forced. "Men know that -- and they find it sexually arousing to watch them in part because of that knowledge."

As Jerome Tanner, porn film maker, explains, "One of the things about today's porn and the extreme market, the gonzo market, is so many fans want to see much more extreme stuff that I'm always trying to figure out ways to do something different. But it seems that everybody wants to see a girl doing a double penetration or a gang bang. ... It's definitely brought porn somewhere, but I don't know where it is headed from there."

Mitchell Spinelli, interviewed while filming Give me Gape, adds: "People want more. They want to know how many dicks you can shove up an ass. It's like 'Fear Factor meets Jackass.' Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless."

Jensen clearly decided in writing his book that the often overwhelming reality of the behavior and values of the porn industry must be experienced by the reader, at least in written form, to understand what the issues are. Thus, in the book, he describes porn scenes, quotes dialogue in the porn films, and includes interviews with porn actors to help capture what they are thinking.

Some of this is a little hard to take. Here is one example:
Jessica Darlin tells the camera she has performed in 200 films, and she is submissive. "I like guys to just take over and fuck me and have a good time with me. I'm just here for pleasure." The man who enters the room grabs her hair and tells her to beg the other man. She crawls over on her hands and knees, and he spanks her hard. When he grabs her by the throat, she seems surprised. During oral sex, he says, "Choke on that dick." She gags. He grabs her head and slaps her face then forces his penis in her mouth quickly. She gags again.The other man duplicates the action, calling her a "little bitch." Jessica is drooling and gagging; she looks as if she might pass out. The men slap her breasts, then grab her by the hair and pull her up. Later in the scene, "One man enters her anally from the rear as she is pushed up against the couch. The other man enters her anally while his partner puts his foot on her head. Finally one grabs her hair and asks here what she wants. 'I want your cum in my mouth,' she says. 'Give me all that cum. I want to taste it.'"

Jensen writes, "In researching the porn industry, one of the most difficult parts is writing about the women who perform. Men see women in porn films as objects of desire (to be fucked) or ridicule (to be made fun of.) When porn performers speak in public, they typically repeat a script that emphasizes that they have freely chosen this career because of their love of sex and lack of inhibition." Nina Hartley is one former porn star who frames her experience in the porn industry as empowering -- a feminist act of a woman taking control of her own life. But Jensen notes that while "we should listen to and respect those voices, we also know from the testimony of women who leave the sex industry that often they are desperate and unhappy in prostitution and pornography but feel the need to validate it as their choice to avoid thinking of themselves as victims."

Robert Jensen -- radical man
So that you understand, Robert Jensen is a true radical. His positions on masculinity, race and pornography are way out of the mainstream. He thinks that concepts of masculinity make men less than human and should be junked. "Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a "real man" is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it."

In writing his book, he turns to one of the most vilified feminists, Andrea Dworkin, as his guide. One of Dworkin's books, Intercourse, enraged many readers. "In it, Dworkin argues that in a male supremacist society, sex between men and women constitutes a central part of women's subordination to men. (This argument was quickly and falsely simplified to "all sex is rape" in the public arena, adding fire to Dworkin's already radical persona.)" But Jensen embraces Dworkin for best understanding pornography and notes that "her love for men was so evident."
Like many stubbornly pure radicals who in the end have provoked change, Jensen, by sheer dint of the power of his arguments, forces one to examine the contradictions and the consequences of our acts, assumptions and opinions. And, by the way, Jensen has a different definition for radical, preferring the Latin "root" for its meaning. "Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem." For Jensen, the question becomes: "How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophy and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality and inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation and oppression to flourish."

Jensen's book is a serious effort to deconstruct pornography and connect it to the society in which it grows and, in some ways, dominates. He addresses in detail the arguments that justify porn and the research that may connect porn to violence. His narrative, interwoven in the book, is about a lonely journey to shed the straight jacket of masculinity, and the pain and lack of acceptance that goes with the territory as he relentlessly pushes his ideas into the public domain.

In the end, the book grapples with a fundamental question. "If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes ever more dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain ... increasingly more intense ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?" Jensen concludes: "... this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here it is the assumption that the U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact the U.S. is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation."

Robert Jensen is on a quest. And he has taken a major step forward in his journey in producing a book that the reader can't run away from or casually dismiss. It is filled with facts, data, intelligent observation and analysis, as well as examples of the raw product of an industry gone gonzo. I know this may sound like a cliche, but I guarantee that after reading this book, almost no one will think about pornography in the same way again.
This essay is excerpted from Robert Jensen's new book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, published by South End Press. Jensen also has helped produce a slide show in PowerPoint with a script about the feminist critique of pornography. For information on how to get a copy, email stoppornculture.

After an intense three hours, the workshop on pornography I have been leading is winding down. The 40 women all work at a center that serves battered women and rape survivors. These are the women on the front lines, the ones who answer the 24-hour hotline and work one-on-one with victims. They counsel women who have just been raped, help women who have been beaten, and nurture children who have been abused. These women have heard and seen it all. No matter how brutal a story might be, they have experienced or heard one even more brutal; there is no way to one-up them on stories of men's violence. But after three hours of information, analysis, and discussion of the commercial heterosexual pornography industry, many of these women are drained. Sadness hangs over the room.

Near the end of the session, one woman who had been quiet starts to speak. Throughout the workshop she had held herself in tightly, her arms wrapped around herself. She talks for some time, and then apologizes for rambling. There is no need to apologize; she is articulating what many feel. She talks about her own life, about what she has learned in the session and about how it has made her feel, about her anger and sadness.

Finally, she says: "This hurts. It just hurts so much."

Everyone is quiet as the words sink in. Slowly the conversation restarts, and the women talk more about how they feel, how they will use the information, what it will mean to their work and in their lives. The session ends, but her words hang in the air.

It hurts.

It hurts to know that no matter who you are as a woman you can be reduced to a thing to be penetrated, and that men will buy movies about that, and that in many of those movies your humiliation will be the central theme. It hurts to know that so much of the pornography that men are buying fuses sexual desire with cruelty.

It hurts women, and men like it, and it hurts just to know that.

Even these women, who have found ways to cope with the injuries from male violence in other places, struggle with that pornographic reality. It is one thing to deal with acts, even extremely violent acts. It is another to know the thoughts, ideas, and fantasies that lie behind those acts.
People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it's about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men's cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people -- men and women -- to face.

Why it hurts
This doesn't mean that all men take sexual pleasure in cruelty. It doesn't mean that all women reject pornography. There is great individual variation in the human species, but there also are patterns in any society. And when those patterns tell us things about ourselves and the world in which we live that are difficult, we often want to look away.

Mirrors can be dangerous, and pornography is a mirror.

Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. Not all men, of course -- but the ways in which many men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women. It is unsettling to look into that mirror.

A story about that: I am out with two heterosexual women friends. Both are feminists in their 30s, and both are successful in their careers. Both are smart and strong, and both have had trouble finding male partners who aren't scared by their intelligence and strength. We are talking about men and women, about relationships. As is often the case, I am told that I am too hard on men. The implication is that after so many years of working in the radical feminist critique of the sex industry and sexual violence, I have become jaded, too mired in the dark side of male sexuality. I contend that I am simply trying to be honest. We go back and forth, in a friendly discussion.

Finally, I tell my friends that I can settle this with a description of one website. I say to them: "If you want me to, I will tell you about this site. I won't tell you if you don't want to hear this.

But if you want me to continue, don't blame me." They look at each other; they hesitate. They ask me to explain.

Some months before that someone had forwarded to me an email about a pornography site that the person thought I should take a look at -- It's a website to sell videos of the slutbus. Here's the slutbus concept:

A few men who appear to be in their 20s drive around in a minivan with a video camera. They ask women if they want a ride. Once in the van, the women are asked if they would be willing to have sex on camera for money. The women do. When the sex is over, the women get out of the van and one of the men hands the women a wad of bills as payment. Just as she reaches for the money, the van drives off, leaving her on the side of the road looking foolish. There are trailers for 10 videos on the website. All appear to use the same "plot" structure.

In the United States there are men who buy videos with that simple message: Women are for sex. Women can be bought for sex. But in the end, women are not even worth paying for sex. They don't even deserve to be bought. They just deserve to be fucked, and left on the side of the road, with post-adolescent boys laughing as they drive away -- while men at home watch, become erect, masturbate, obtain sexual pleasure, and ejaculate, and then turn off the DVD player and go about their lives. There are other companies that produce similar videos. There's, which leaves women by the side of the road after sex in the bangbus. And on it goes.

I look at my friends and tell them: "You realize what I just described is relatively tame. There are things far more brutal and humiliating than that, you know."

We sit quietly, until one of them says, "That wasn't fair."

I know that it wasn't fair. What I had told them was true, and they had asked me to tell them.

But it wasn't fair to push it. If I were them, if I were a woman, I wouldn't want to know that. Life is difficult enough without knowing things like that, without having to face that one lives in a society in which no matter who you are -- as an individual, as a person with hopes and dreams, with strengths and weaknesses -- you are something to be fucked and laughed at and left on the side of the road by men. Because you are a woman.

"I'm sorry," I said. "But you asked."

In a society in which so many men are watching so much pornography, this is why we can't bear to see it for what it is: Pornography forces women to face up to how men see them. And pornography forces men to face up to what we have become. The result is that no one wants to talk about what is in the mirror. Although few admit it, lots of people are afraid of pornography. The liberal/libertarian supporters who celebrate pornography are afraid to look honestly at what it says about our culture. The conservative opponents are afraid that pornography undermines their attempts to keep sex boxed into narrow categories.

Feminist critics are afraid, too -- but for different reasons. Feminists are afraid because of what they see in the mirror, because of what pornography tells us about the world in which we live. That fear is justified. It's a sensible fear that leads many to want to change the culture.
Pornography has become normalized, mainstreamed. The values that drive the slutbus also drive the larger culture. As a New York Times story put it, "Pornography isn't just for dirty old men anymore." Well, it never really was just for dirty men, or old men, or dirty old men. But now that fact is out in the open. That same story quotes a magazine writer, who also has written a pornography script: "People just take porn in stride these days. There's nothing dangerous about sex anymore." The editorial director of Playboy, who says that his company has "an emphasis on party," tells potential advertisers: "We're in the mainstream."

There never was anything dangerous about sex, of course. The danger isn't in sex, but in a particular conception of sex in patriarchy. And the way sex is done in pornography is becoming more and more cruel and degrading, at the same time that pornography is becoming more normalized than ever. That's the paradox.

The paradox of pornography
First, imagine what we could call the cruelty line -- the measure of the level of overt cruelty toward, and degradation of, women in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. That line is heading up, sharply.

Second, imagine the normalization line -- the measure of the acceptance of pornography in the mainstream of contemporary culture. That line also is on the way up, equally sharply.

If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes evermore dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain the simultaneous appearance of more, and increasingly more intense, ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?

As is often the case, this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here, it's the assumption that U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact, the United States is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation. Think of the way we accept the use of brutal weapons in war that kill civilians, or the way we accept the death penalty, or the way we accept crushing economic inequality. There is no paradox in the steady mainstreaming of an intensely cruel pornography. This is a culture with a well-developed legal regime that generally protects individuals' rights and freedoms, and yet it also is a strikingly cruel culture in the way it accepts brutality and inequality.

The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyper-patriotic nationalism, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism.

See more stories tagged with: porn, pornography, violence, domestic violence, rape, humiliation, abuse, sexuality, masculinity
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet. Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached here and his articles are online here.