Women's Bodies Remain Battlegrounds in the Culture Wars
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This spring and summer have been remarkable ones for books about sex, gender and reproduction -- the avid women's issues reader has been up to her ears in provocative feminist tomes.
What's amazing about the books discussed below is not just the powerful arguments they make individually, but the way they together paint a complete picture of our culture wars at home and abroad. That broad picture reveals the ugly truth that women's bodies remain battlegrounds for ideological struggles all over the world.
But there is something heartening in the lifting of voices both within the books and by the authors themselves. Robust, articulate, and multifaceted critique of patriarchy in its many forms storming bookshelves all at once has to be a good sign.
The Purity Myth (Seal Press)
Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth addresses the virgin-whore dichotomy as it manifests itself in our modern lives. Anyone who knows their basic feminist theory is aware that what are purportedly opposite ends of the spectrum of women's behavior - the slut and the virgin - are actually two sides of the same coin. Both the over-sexualization of girls and the obsession with their purity reduces women to their bodies and sexuality. Whether - as Valenti relates - we're equating them to used gum in abstinence-only classes, urging them to join the "modesty movement," or buying high heels for "prostitots," we're participating in the Purity Myth. Valenti goes even further by reminding us that the losing-your-virginity/giving-it-up terminology we use to describe first sexual encounters is dated and demeaning, implying that being sexually untouched is something of great value.
What's amazing about the publicity surrounding Valenti's book is how controversial her thesis remains. Today Show hosts Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotbe responded to Valenti's well-reasoned arguments with trite platitudes about the "consequences" of sex while " Observe and Report" demonstrated how far the rape culture Valenti describes has permeated the mainstream. The American psyche seems unable to conceive of a culture in which rejecting degrading objectification of women does not mean corralling them into a chaste corner. Valenti argues powerfully for a middle ground where women are "more than the sum of their sexual parts."
Quiverfull (Beacon Press)
If Valenti's book explores the pervasive myths and rotten information that dogs most American girls, Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull examines the extreme margins of that spectrum, in the midst of a home-schooling, housewife-centric culture of fundamentalist Christianity. We know the Quiverfull advocates through their websites, which advocate an extreme anti-abortion, anti-birth control mentality and lifestyle. But Joyce goes far deeper. These aren't just the tongue-speaking evangelicals mocked by Borat and the culture at large, but also a growing movement within the "reformed" Calvinist church (i.e some mainline Protestant denominations unhappy with the egalitarianism in their faiths). This movement emphasizes the ideals of "male headship" and "wifely submission" claiming the belief that man is to woman as Jesus is to his worshippers, a guide to be followed and a voice to be heeded. Liberation through submission is the gospel for womanly duty within this paradigm.
Quiverfull in some ways is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer's incredible Under the Banner of Heaven, in that it spends time amongst the devotees of the Quiverfull doctrine and its spiritual kin, depicting a different kind of "life on the edge." Joyce documents the rivalries, feuds, excommunications, and sometimes extreme poverty which families experience when they embrace Christian Patriarchy, all evidence that makes its cult-like properties apparent.
But Joyce is not merely telling a story that affects one group - her message is one of concern for all of us. The Quiverfull movement is more than a cult on the sidelines. Its members see their flocks of children as armies, crusaders against feminism, secularism and hedonism. And perhaps more ominously, their numbers are potent enough to effect political change. Some of those public policy echoes are seen in Valenti's book and Michelle Goldberg's work, discussed below. Joyce's meticulously-researched, densely-packed book, then, is not just an exploration but also a warning signal that this movement should be ignored at our own peril.