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Reflections on Good Sex

The essays in the compilation Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions include the views of several Jewish and Christian feminist scholars. Though not all of the authors identify as lesbian, they share similar views and concerns. It is interesting to note that in many ways their unity is found more in their shared gender identity than in their sexual preferences. This is the first feature of these essays that I found striking: there is no analogous "masculist" movement nor a shared set of concerns among gay and straight men that would provide an overarching backdrop in a male-oriented conversation. However, as I reflect on this a possible explanation appears to be that women, whether gay or straight, are able to identify with each other’s oppression within our framework of power dynamics. Straight men, who most often occupy the position of privilege in our society, are less apt to identify with the oppression faced by gay men, as to do so could result in a loss of privilege.

book coverMajor themes of concern to contributors include compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory motherhood and gender-based roles. Other areas of interest included the regulating structures of religion and their consequences – both intended and unintended – and the problem of biblical authority in discussions regarding power dynamics and minority issues. Let us briefly examine each of these topics.

Judith Plaskow defines compulsory heterosexuality in her contribution to this volume as "the complex of social and political processes through which people learn how and are made to be heterosexual" (131). The simplest way of enforcing such an arrangement is by forbidding all other modes of expression with threat of punishment or death, as for example the Levitical code does with its proscription against male homosexual activity (Lev 18:22; 20:13). However, a secondary enforcement mechanism is to render an activity invisible by simply pronouncing it impossible. This is the course taken in the rabbinic literature with regard to lesbian sexual activity (Plaskow 131). Plaskow points out that instructions such as those found in Genesis 3:16 where husbands are specifically vested with the role of ruling over their wives also reinforce compulsory heterosexuality by instituting a system of gender complementarity, hetero-normative unions and subordination of women (131).

While Plaskow writes from a woman’s point of view, her observations can be taken in the opposite direction as well. The norm of gender complementarity passed down from the mouth of God in the Genesis story is also used in modern debates over homosexuality as rationale for the impossibility of male-male relationships and is often expressed in the well-known "plumbing argument." Reflecting on Plaskow’s observation of how our cultural systems work to make alternative relationships invisible I am reminded of boys’ schoolyard antics. We tend to run around calling each other "fag" and "queer," understanding only the physical acts (if that) associated with our epithets; however, very use of these words as taunts has the effect of barring the imagining of a stable, loving, multi-dimensional homosexual relationship.

Related to the idea of compulsory heterosexuality is compulsory motherhood – a system of cultural, economic and religious influences that exert great pressure on women to have children. Feminists are concerned with the ways in which compulsory motherhood works to deny women ultimate rights over their own bodies and reproductive choices. Examples include the lack of contraceptive methods available to women due to poverty or religious prohibition and cultural expectations that women should marry and produce heirs for their husbands. I have witnessed this particular mechanism in action in my own family where my brother and sister-and-law are neither desirous of children nor physically capable of producing their own biologically. A week does not pass in which my sister-in-law is not asked when she and my brother will finally be having a child. (The audacity to ask such a question is quite beyond my comprehension, and yet, friends, some family members, colleagues at work and church members continue to push, not-so-subtly pressuring them to have children.) In this example I have used a heterosexual couple; however, the same pressures are at play with lesbians and gays. And though I am not a woman, I can attest to the comments made within my own family about what a wonderful father I would make or about the pity of not having an heir to whom to pass along a legacy. Perhaps this category could be broadened to "compulsory parenthood" for all of the LGBT community.

In her essay on compulsory motherhood, Wanda Deifelt discusses what to a contemporary American audience may appear to be radical division of gender roles in the concepts of machismo and marianismo in Latin American cultures. Men control public spheres of life (government, economics) and hold power over both women and children. Deifelt claims that this is the basis for an ideological justification that claims the superiority of men (99). On the other hand, marianismo enforces gender roles in women that identify with traditional attributes of the Virgin Mary including spiritual purity, moral superiority and motherhood. "Women approach sainthood by enduring a lifetime of suffering, especially if this suffering is caused by marriage or childbearing" (Deifelt 100). However, identification with Mary leaves only two options: either motherhood or virginity, thereby excluding any other relational structure. While this example might appear extreme for our own context, we too have our gender divisions. Terms such as "glass ceiling," "man’s world," and "boys’ club" serve as reminders that women’s roles are still subordinated to men’s in our own context. Along with this division of roles comes a tacit understanding that same-sex couplings violate the established cultural order, subordinating one man to another or establishing a relationship between two women in which neither is culturally appointed as the head of the household. Though same-sex couples have been dealing with these issues since the advent of open relationships, the general population has been largely locked into established cultural models of thought, only jarred from their assumptions by socio-economic changes that have necessitated dual income households and by the presence of the openly gay or lesbian couple moving into the house next door.

Moving from the social to the religious, two articles were particularly useful in evaluating feminist (and potential LGBT) responses to our religious traditions and the scriptures. Interestingly, both authors are writing from a Jewish feminist perspective; however, it seems to me that the points they bring up can be readily adapted to the Christian faith.

In her analysis of how religion attempts to regulate human sexuality Rebecca Alpert notes that the dictates of the Hebrew Scriptures and further Rabbinic Judaism "reflect the traditions of the elite group of men whose thought represents only one fragmentary perspective of the world in which the Jews lived" (33). Because these are the only preserved texts within Judaism it is unclear exactly how much sway they had over discussions of sexuality in their original context. However, regardless of their original authority, they are often used today in rhetorical arguments regarding the regulation of same-sex acts. Alpert traces the traditional linkage of sex with procreation and the privilege afforded long-term, committed relationships and gender inequity – religious regulation has attempted to confine sex to relationships which facilitate the birth and subsequent long-term care of children. However, in our own day new phenomena such as adoption, contraception, alternative insemination, and open same-sex relationships have brought into question the assumptions that undergird the regulations built into Judaism (and by extension Christianity). This decoupling of sex and procreation has led to an interesting ethical question to which I will return to below.

In her own analysis of scripture and its authority, Judith Plaskow points out that it is not enough to simply lift divergent minority voices from the patriarchal tradition and attempt to build a new sexual ethic (135). While this approach may at first appear promising, to invest authority in one or more dissident voices over and against the majority values within the tradition is to build on shaky ground which is easily refuted as long as the locus authority rests within the text. Instead, Plaskow believes a better starting point to be resistance to any framework which denies the agency of the oppressed. Such systems are to be questioned and transformed by placing the oppressed at the center (135). Once this shift is accomplished, it is possible to lift dissident voices from the tradition as examples of the new paradigm. However, it is essential that we as LGBT people begin from a place of creating [Instructor’s Comment: discovering] our own identity first – if need be outside of the traditional framework – which will form the core from which a new ethic can be developed. This makes sense to me. Without shifting the locus of authority, we tacitly acknowledge scripture as a primary influence in shaping our worldview. This leads back to proof-texting arguments which polarize viewpoints and inhibit any meaningful communication.  [Instructor’s Comment:  Why?  There seems to be a jump here(?)]

A question that Alpert’s essay has raised for me regards the intrinsic value of sexual pleasure. If sex is no longer tied directly to procreation and sanctioned only within long-term, committed relationships, might we suggest that sexual pleasure in and of itself would be justification enough for engaging in sex? I find this notion challenging, as I recognize in my own moral framework that I associate sexual liaisons with activity reserved for committed, long-term, "deep" relationships. Mary Hunt suggests in her essay that good sex "is safe, pleasurable, community building, and conducive to justice" (158). As I reflect on these criteria I can imagine relationships that are not long-term and yet are not exploitative as two parties choose to engage in a mutually pleasurable and safe activity. Yet even as I write this, questions arise regarding the validity of such arrangements. Clearly the idea of a one night stand is not supported, as the criterion of community building is not upheld. However, the concept of "friends with benefits" might under some circumstances fit within this framework. This is a question that, for me personally, requires further reflection.


Works Cited

Alpert, Rebecca T. "Guilty Pleasures: when sex is good because it’s bad." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 31-43.

Deifelt, Wanda. "Beyond Compulsory Motherhood." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 96-112.

Hunt, Mary E. "Just Good Sex: feminist Catholicism and human rights." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 158-173.

Plaskow, Judith. "Authority, Resistance and Transformation: Jewish Feminist Reflections on Good Sex." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 127-139.

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