Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Women, STDs and Vulnerability

In Ruby Slippers, I talked about the way a woman is vulnerable, to alcohol, to rape, to pregnancy, to abuse, and I have one more to add, to STDs.

There is a discouraging, though not altogether unsurprising, statistic making headlines. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 4 teenage girls have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The New York Times covers the findings, "Sex Infections Found in Quarter of Teenage Girls". My thoughts kicked into high gear when I heard that. What are my friends and sister's friends going to be inheriting in the coming years? Infertility will continue to rise as infections from disease destroy the fine-tuned fertility micro-climate in a woman's body. For an excellent book on how women's fertility is beautifully and wonderfully made (Ps 139) go out immediately and buy Toni Weschler's Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement and Reproductive Health.

If 1:4 Caucasian women and 1:2 African American women have an STD, we ought to ponder the bitter irony of sexual freedom and how it preys on the more vulnerable. Many believe that safer sex needs to be taught. I read yesterday a huge Wall Street Journal advertisement, nearly full page, that read "America is Not a Sexually Healthy Nation" citing the CDC's findings and offering some steps like "Evolve education- Schools should teach comprehensive sex education that includes both abstinence and condom use." That's sort of strange, I thought. I mean you really don't need a condom is you're chaste. Then I noticed who paid for the ad, Trojan Brand Condoms.

Now I'm not going to climb up on a soap box and tell you that I think condoms are terrible. They're not. They're actually fairly effective at preventing pregnancy. So by all means some married couples should feel free to use them if they'd like to wait for children. But we're not even talking about pregnancy, we're talking about disease. Are condoms really enough? If they don't work 100% of the time to keep out a tiny sperm from sneaking through, what makes us think they can stop all the other diseases lurking about?

But I suppose the thing that bothers me the most is that STDs are infiltrating the core of a woman's body, targeting her capacities for vulnerability in the future. You know how hard it is to raise your voice when you have a sore, inflamed throat? Or to laugh a deep, vulnerable belly guffaw when you have a cough? Well, that's a taste of how hard it will be for these young women to be vulnerable in intimacy when the sensitive parts of her body, her reproductive capacities, her sexual pleasure and recreation has been damaged, ravaged by disease, inflamed from infection. The physical pain is just a small slice of the problem. I haven't even touched on the psychological aspects of sex without the safety and freedom of marriage (see Is Porn Empowering, especially the Comments for a further discussion). In my mind "free sex" makes it more difficult for women to be vulnerable (it's hard to be vulnerable when you are diseased in the area of vulnerability) and that means she is no longer free to embrace a key component of her femininity. (For the link between women and vulnerability see Ruby Slippers pg. 109-117).

Vulnerability means we have places that can be touched, wounded or pleased. As I've written in Ruby Slippers, "Vulnerability requires that we have places that are tender, places we can be affected, touched and even destroyed. A sparrow is more vulnerable than a rock. But because a sparrow is alive, it whistles, and soars, even though it can also be caught by a cat and clawed to death." (p 112).

But what happens when a woman gets clawed half-way to death. What happens when the cat gets tired of her, leaves her for dead, but she doesn't die. When a woman moves on in life, bearing an STD, how is she changed? What does an STD do to a woman's vulnerability (and in my mind her femininity)?

The first Woman, Eve, began life unafraid of her vulnerability for none would take advantage of it. Women today seem so free, we boast of their self-actualization, their empowerment, but I think modern American women are enslaved.

Just as the women who undergo forced gender mutilation in tribal cultures are wounded, their bodies forever changed, so are women who experience sex without the protection, the freedom, the security and comfort of marriage. In female circumcision the knife cuts away the tender areas of a woman's genitals, but in America we're not all that different, for disease is cutting away at women in the very same area, effecting the very same results: guarded, fearful, damaged, ashamed females.

I agree with the Trojan ad. Yes, we can do better than this. Yes, America is sexually unhealthy. Yes, we need to become part of the solution. Yes, women are "at risk." But we're going to need a lot more than condoms. We need to acknowledge, value and respect the vulnerabilities inherent in women.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Powerful People- Old, White Men; Pretty, Young Women

This is a follow-up post to the previous post on "Why America is Not Ready for a Female President."

Wouldn't it have been nice to find things different? But with the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, I've found others from the New York Times ("Postfeminism and Other Fairy Tales") to England's Guardian ("Why Does Hillary Clinton Wear Such Bad Clothes?") sounding the same notes that Hillary Clinton has been sidelined because of her appearance.

They also note others who've said, "she is a woman and therefore dangerously sexy, but also a woman and therefore a tedious maternal nag." Interesting that women and danger and sexy are all in the same sentence. Reminds me a bit of the old Medieval Catholic idea, believed by many, including Tertulian, that women sullied the world, that women were a tremendous temptation and therefore better left untouched, untasted, unhandled. Like we were some poisoned pretty apple from Satan. I believe Tertullian's words are, "Woman, thou are the devil's gateway, through you sin entered the world." I also found that other journalists were understandably outraged that white men and pretty women wield too much power. Sure it's changing, but not quite as fast as we'd imagine.

I'd like to take a moment to note that the way women's captivating powers are viewed and used and accepted (even in the church as John and Staci Eldredge's book Captivating has proved) is a relatively new idea. Women of character didn't want to captivate, that was a job for adulterous women, geishas, prostitutes, seducers. Women didn't vie for the type of power that a pretty, young thing could easily gain and easily lose. Women didn't parade porn bunnies on their T-shirts, didn't carry key-chains that read "porn star", didn't dress like what my sister calls "hoochi-mamas" on Halloween and call it a costume. And men didn't dress up like gynocologists for Halloween either. Most women knew that a man of character could not be gained with their flesh alone.

But since the early 20th century, things have changed drastically. Who has brainwashed us into believing the main thing to look for in the opposite sex is attractiveness? Is it Hollywood that's to blame? Is it movie stars? Is it fashion mags? Is it godless feminists who parade their free sexuality everywhere? Rather than blame, perhaps we ought to wonder at how we've bought into the lies.

We actually have women and men in our churches, in our homes, maybe even we believe that sex appeal is much more important than honesty, openness, vulnerability, kindness, communication. This sex-addiction began in full-force in American in the early 1900's. This is a date that is often associated with the explosion of Hollywood movies into American theaters and eventually television which pumped ideas into our homes. People grew accustomed to seeing beautiful, attractive, symmetrical people who were the heroes and heroines. We began to demand that we look that good, that you look that good. In fact, not until movies came out did you see immediate wide-spread trends of clothing, jewelry, make-up, hair styles, what's "in" and what's "out." Not until relatively recently did people start closing their eyes when they kissed because that's what they do "in the movies."

So now, because Hillary Clinton is sandwiched between commercials with stylish, white-teethed, symmetrical, full-bosomed females selling us Crest and movie stars who have more money, more sex-appeal, cuter kids, hotter husbands, we find her terribly wanting.

Note: Again, I do not support Clinton, but I do believe that short, older, regular looking women should not be automatically disqualified from power simple on the basis of looks.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Isn't America Ready for a Female President?

For over a year there's been quite the buzz over Hillary Clinton's potential for presidency. Newsweek's Kathleen Deveny writes in "Just Leave Your Mother Out of It" that as much as she hates to write it, "America is not ready for a female president . . . It appalls me. It goes against everything I grew up hearing, everything I tell my daughter. But I have come to believe it."

Do you believe that? Many journalists do, opinion editorialists, National Review, even Madonna. It is unfortunate that those who love Clinton and those who hate her have pin-pointed her womanhood as the reason. I think it's time we got a bit more honest with ourselves.

Far be it from me to assert that our sex has no affect on our humanity. It does, our body is the bearer and expression of something interior. However, there is much to evaluate in a presidential candidate. Do please include Clinton's womanhood, but let's not park on this as the deal breaker. Isn't it possible that she is failing because of other key components of who she is, for her tactics, her positions, her tendency to be ruthless in debate and strategy (personally I lose respect for men or women who treat people as means rather than ends), her lack of clarity or conviction when the popular vote leans in an opposite direction. Watching her use of emotional rhetoric, her rise to senator in New York and her calculating strides to grasp at a slice of America' power pie make me distrustful. But none of this revolves around her being a female. I know of several female women I would be excited about running the country, Clinton just so happens not to be on my list.

And yet, I've noticed a double standard. Clint may be about as ruthless and clever as Madonna, but we don't admire her, instead we poke fun at her, deride her, insult her. Why?

I've noticed "anti-Hillary" comments tend to focus on something pitifully unimportant.

Most criticism of Clinton focuses on her body. And I've heard enough to believe that what we're really saying is that a female might be powerful ONLY if she is sexy. This expectation is not, sadly, very new.Attacking a regular-looking woman who seeks power has been an American past-time.

Interestingly, the attacks on Clinton's "cankles" and "pantsuits" are precisely the type of negative censure that faced Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, nearly 100 years ago. McPherson was targeted as not being beautiful enough, identified as the woman with the "thick ankles." During her rise to fame, she looked simple, dressed plainly and kept to the strict message of Jesus as the salvation of each person. This was only at first.

But, newspapers and the American people who demanded stories, could not leave her appearance alone. The Record ran a contest to "identify Mrs. McPhersons' ankles" on the front page of it's paper, featuring 8 sets of ankles. McPherson learned in these years that she must squeeze herself into the slim standards of Hollywood in order to be respected and loved while she continued to break into a male dominate sphere, pastoring, preaching and leading a church, university, radio program. This was in the 1920's when women were expected, as McPherson's own husband asked her, to "wash the dishes", "take care of the house," and above all "act like other women."

McPherson's life shows us how far a woman will believe she must go, how the public can change a woman. McPherson became intentional about altering her image to dazzle her audience with a remade self. She became the perfect picture of a slim, peroxided bobbed feminine beauty. I know its hard to believe, but this second picture is the same woman, Aimee Semple McPherson, remade for her public.

We need to note what the attacks on Clinton's appearance do to us as women. They reveal that we either do not know any issue on which to disagree with her, or we believe appearance is a sufficient reason to disqualify a woman from doing her work. Would you ever tolerate an employer telling you that? "You can't work here because your legs are too fat??" We would not live with that in our own lives, and yet so many women are insisting that it is Clinton's appearance that disgusts them, makes it horrendous to even imagine her as president. We are insisting on the stringent standards of appearance that we are all frustrated and often enslaved by. It's time to stop.

Kathleen Deveny of the Newsweek's article claims that in America we still don't like our women powerful. I'd have to disagree with Deveny, because I know of several powerful women we easily admire: Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Oprah. All have fit bodies, all have marketed themselves as attractive, desirable females and each has about as much depth as a pie tin. Unfortunately this is not the sort of power I care to aspire to. So when Madonna comments about Hillary's difficulties, "In America, men are still afraid. And I don't think women are too comfortable with the idea of a female in charge. I find that really amazing" I think I might have an answer for her. Perhaps women don't like a woman in charge because in America powerful women have to maintain a certain sexiness, too. That becomes a distinct threat and one, ironically, women like Madonna have perpetuated, marketed and exploited.

So while I will not vote for Clinton, let's do away with this nonsense that she must be a dazzling Hollywood vixen. Presidents in this country should not be required to seduce the public with their stunning figure simply because they are women. If you're going to criticize Clinton, and women I'm speaking directly to you, do not start and end with her body, her fashion, or her hairstyle. That is about as objectifying to women as is Hugh Hefner's entire industry.