Saturday, November 15, 2014

50 Shades of Rape: How Bondage Chic is Contributing to "Rape Culture"

Over the past year or so, I have been introduced to a relatively new term known as "rape culture". As far as I can tell, it is a complaint launched against certain elements in society that seek to glamorize and/or rationalize the abuse and objectification of women (a complaint with which I agree). These individuals also seem very intent on castigating those who would attempt, in any way, to suggest that women ever have any responsibility for the subsequent abuse that they experience. One prime example of this rallying cry goes something like this: "Don't tell women how to dress- teach men not to rape". Just to be clear, I have about -1.3% amount of sympathy for rapists, so this has nothing to do with criticizing a victim, but I do think it is important to mention that there are some things that a women can do to lower the risk of attracting the type of men who may want to do just that.

First of all, some of these problems could be mitigated (not eliminated) if both men and women understood each other a little better... and then made a subsequent effort to adapt their behavior according to that understanding. The common criticism from women of men is that they do not listen. Well, I would agree they quite often don't, but it is possible (dare I say it) that women are capable of the same form of deafness. And one of the things that I am saying as a man, is that men are fundamentally visual creatures in such a way that our vision is directly connected to our sense of arousal. Are there exceptions? Yes, of course! But what I am saying is not only observably true- it is a physiological fact.

This explains why the majority of people who purchase pornography, and/or are addicted to it (not to mention those who distribute it), are men. Thus, if women do not want men staring at them as if they were some kind of Baconator, or model from the latest Carl's Burger ad, they should take this under advisement. This unpleasant ogling could of course happen to any women even were she dressed like a Menonite (because a pervert is a pervert after all), but I think common sense should tell us that the women featured below are far more likely to attract the wandering eyes of a predator (or even a normal guy), than a woman in a mumu.

I am not proposing that women adorn themselves with a burqa or mumu (this is a popular reductio ad absurdum). There is a middle ground. For example, when a woman dresses in a way that is attractive- but not overly revealing- most men are drawn to her face, rather than anywhere else on her body. Indeed, in this instance there is a kind of healthy curiosity that arises in a man about who this attractive person is. But when one is dressed in an overly revealing fashion, most men will be drawn to the part that is… well... most "revealing". I repeat, men tend to be "visual" creatures in this respect.

Nevertheless, some will complain that men should just control themselves, and that it is up to them to manage the way they behave, and I agree. But let's be honest, this is a particular weakness of men, so why would you want to prey on it (especially when this is precisely the kind of instinct which threatens to turn you into "prey")?

Part of the problem is that some women really do want to be viewed as "sexy", and they naturally do like the attention, what they want to manage/control is the precise kind of attention they receive. Unfortunately for them, "sexy" isn't discerning, it attracts whatever eyes are attracted. Yet like the opening scene from the movie Fantasia, the result quite often can be very different from what was initially intended. In other words, admiration from a distance, yes, negative attention and "stalkish" behavior that sometimes comes with it, absolutely not.

It should not surprise women then that immoral men run primarily on their libidinous instinct. Revealing outfits + unscrupulous men = buyer beware. This is a fact, not an accusation, and you can hold up whatever cardboard sign you want, but it doesn't necessarily reduce the risk. Men should not rape women. Check. Nevertheless, women should be wise to the fact that there are perverse men out there who tend to gravitate towards cleavages wherever they may be found on a woman's body. A woman's body is not inert in the eyes of a man. This may explain why some cultures go to extremes to cover up women (which I am not suggesting). Thus, men should indeed be taught how to treat women respectfully and reverently. And women should help men in this regard by, yes, telling them "not to rape", but also by avoiding blatant hypocrisy (i.e. blaming men for staring at a region of their body that their hemline/neckline seems clearly to suggest that they should stare at).          

Leaving aside the question of modesty (as well as men who clearly have very little moral formation), let us consider for a moment another danger to the general welfare of women: the mainstreaming of sado-masochism. Indeed, if you can get over the fact that I just said "mainstream" and "sadomasochism" in the same sentence, you might get around to tackling another stunner. Irony of ironies, the first people who decry misogyny and "rape culture" are sometimes the first to celebrate kink, or to put it more accurately, simulated rape. After all, is not the whole idea behind S&M- that you should be treated like an animal, a slave, or some kind of prisoner who is tied up and completely vulnerable to the whims of their captor? Yes, thank you "50 Shades of Rape" for liberating women from the bondage of being treated like a beloved companion, and delivering them instead into the hands of one who would derive pleasure from inflicting pain upon them.

I am no psychiatrist, but if I were to diagnose why such people simulate what they decry, I would say that it is possible that they themselves have been a victim in the past, or perhaps it is just because they have grown completely numb and bored with life, or maybe such individuals simply feel incapable of experiencing any kind of vulnerability or intimacy unless it is imposed upon them in a completely unnatural way. Who's to say?

But whatever the reason, there is a healthier way to accomplish this sense of intimacy, and it doesn't involve bondage, or being suffocated. This healthier form of sexual expression actually possesses all of the "benefits" of bondage, but with this one important distinction: true intimacy never involves forcing someone into anything, or robbing them of their power or dignity. This positive form of "bondage" results when one gives one's self freely to another in a complete act of trust. Thus, one derives pleasure, not from the act of physically forcing someone to do what you want (or being forced to do it yourself), but rather from the desire to cede all power to the one you love. With sadomasochism, you make yourself a prisoner, not because you love them, but because you have some bizarre obsession with Stockholm syndrome. In the context of true intimacy, you give yourself completely, not as a means to encounter some kind of creepy stranger dominating you with a mask and whip, but because you know that your lover is also your liberator.

This picture features a story that recently went viral about a man married to his wife for fifty-five years, who, in spite of her death, still brings her picture with him, especially when he's dining out   

Yet if you are still unconvinced that sado-masochism amounts to consensual rape, simply consider this little nugget of wisdom that I gleaned from a Planned Parenthood representative in their video on the practice of BDSM (Bondage-Sado-Masochism); "Rule Number #3: Because saying 'stop', 'don't' or 'no' may be part of the 'scene', partners practicing BDSM must agree on a safe word that's easy to remember…" Wait a minute, so now you're telling me that it is possible in some instances for "no" to mean "yes"? So you're telling me that as long as I call it a "scene", I can pretend I'm raping you all I want? I thought the golden rule of feminist sexuality made it clear that "no means no." Now you're telling that it doesn't necessarily apply so long as I'm only pretending to rape you? No, I can't imagine how that would create the wrong impression, or send the wrong message. After all, how could practicing a "rape scene" for kicks would inspire the real performance of it?

And by the way, this video is not only the time I have heard a Planned Parenthood representative offer this kind of advice to young girls (watch it if you can endure it). The only real question left is not whether "bondage chic" promotes "rape culture" (because it does), but whether or not supporters of things like 50 Shades of Grey (and the like) believe that rape is OK as long as there is some kind of mutual agreement surrounding it? Based on all of this, is it any wonder where a rapist gets the idea that a woman "really wants it", when in truth what she is saying is quite the opposite?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Magical Musical Mystery Tour

1. Across the Universe - Fiona Apple

2. John Lennon - Imagine

3. Trevor Hall - Unity

4. Peter Gabriel - The Feeling Begins

4a. Desert Rose - Sting

5. Alleluia - Jeff Buckley

5a. Audioslave - Show Me How To Live

6. Smashing Pumpkins - Bullet with Butterfly Wings

6a. Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

7. In Your Eyes - Peter Gabriel

7a. Pride (in the name of love) - U2

7b. Carry On My Wayward Son - Kansas

8. Music from the Karate Kid

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What I Learned from a Consecrated Nun About Sexuality...

About a week ago I gave my seniors an assignment. I asked them to watch a video from the now famous religious sister, Cristina, who won the Italian version of The Voice. The video I had them watch was a cover of the Madonna song "Like a Virgin". Obviously, right off the bat, there are any number of things which one might find objectionable about a nun performing this song. Indeed, I can hear the complaints right now. "So what you're telling me is that a Catholic nun covered a song by the pop star Madonna, a woman who has- for decades- summarily pooped on everything associated with Catholicism, notwithstanding her use of the name Madonna, which is of course one of the reverential titles for the Blessed Virgin Mary? Making matters worse, the song selected by the sister is the same one which is most famous for turning the concept of "virginity" into a kind of provocative come-hither. Does this really seem like a good idea? Is it not a terrible scandal for a consecrated religious to go public with something like this? Or even worse, is this not yet another bizarre and pitiful attempt on the part of a religious person to appear 'relevant'?"

So this was the assignment I gave my students. They were simply to watch the video and tell me if they found it "sacred or profane". I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, but I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the result. Indeed, the majority of the ones who spoke up (both male and female) regarded the final product as over the line, claiming that they understood what she was trying to accomplish, but felt somehow that she shouldn't do it. All the same, these students were certainly not alone in their discomfort. As a matter of fact, any number of people on social media expressed a similar displeasure.

The general criticism goes something like this: not only should the song never have been covered by a consecrated woman, but the singer, some complained, didn't even have a great voice. They pointed out that were she not a nun, she would not have even been noticed (similar arguments could be launched against Madonna and what she brings to the table, but I digress). I wanted to begin with this particular criticism simply because, while it may be true on one level, it is irrelevant to the most important question this discussion raises. Is it possible to take something which borders on pornography and attempt to repurpose it for something holy? And secondly (and perhaps more poignantly), is a religious sister really the right person to attempt this, especially when the song she performs seems to be dealing with subject matter that threatens to undermine the integrity and purity of a vocation that generally steers clear of such controversy?

The answer (in my humble opinion) is yes. Let me begin by saying that I am just as surprised by this conclusion as some of my students were. After all, the idea as it is presented sounds preposterous (not to mention potentially blasphemous). For this reason, some have understandably concluded that it is wise to avoid the controversy altogether. Indeed, how easy is it to have your reputation sullied by associating yourself with such a person, let alone singing her music? But here is where I would offer a little push back. Is it always the case that the devil should be the victor in this life? If someone like Madonna comes along and abuses a beautiful thing like virginal purity, should one simply stand aside while another systematically defiles it? In a similar vein, if Madonna seeks to use her own name as a means to create a perverse association with that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is our only alternative to stomp and shout?

Some time ago I watched a movie called The Gift. It was not what I would call the greatest movie in the world, but there was one particularly profound scene. Early on in the film, a child asks his mother; “What does the word f—— mean?” His mother responds; “It is an ugly word for something beautiful.” And that is precisely the point here. What is profanity but an empty show? Indeed, the term pornographic would have no meaning at all unless there was an original good to corrupt (viz. sex). Hence, without the sacred there would be nothing to profane.

When people claim (and complain) that Madonna, through songs like this, has turned something beautiful into something ugly, I am right with them. But what good does such anger accomplish on its own? Yes, it is important to express outrage, but would it not be far more effective to use the same medium in order to turn "swords back into plowshares and spears back into pruning hooks"? They are, after all, made from the same material.

However, some might contend that because the original intent of the artist was so despicable, the piece is therefore irredeemable. In response to this concern I would like to offer the Christian cross as an interesting counterpoint. The intention of the demonic "artist" at Calvary (i.e. Satan) was not all that different than Madonna's, for he likewise sought to creatively and effectively undermine purity and goodness in the name of his own wretched form of pornography. But God also had a plan of his own, a plan which involved taking this profanity of profanities and transforming it into the most exquisite work of art in the history of the world (remember- the cross itself was considered "a scandal"). Yet the question remains: how could something so ugly and wicked be transformed into something so beautiful?

There is nothing in Creation however twisted and/or distorted that does not ultimately find its origin in God. Thus God, in his providence, seeks to reclaim everything (including sex) and bring it under his dominion. Consequently, the only thing left in the world (profane or not) that ultimately cannot be re-claimed/redeemed by God is the will of one who refuses reclamation.

The best argument in my opinion against the sister performing this piece is the question of prudence. Yes, theologically it may be fine, but what about how it looks to the audience? I do not dispute that her decision to perform this was provocative and risky. However, here is why I think that she made the right, and dare I say it, prophetic choice. As a simple consequence of listening to her version of the song, I found myself converted to her vision of it- not only because she presented a purer way of interpreting it, but also a purer way of seeing Madonna herself. Moreover, what the nun's version reminded me was that the words of the original song do in fact have a redemptive quality to them, and that the majority of Madonna's musical catalogue is not filled with vile euphemisms. What has made Madonna infamous all of these years is not her song lyrics, but rather her twisted use of the music video genre. Indeed, if you listen to the majority of her songs, you quickly come to realize that they consist primarily of innocuous and catchy love ballads- as well as some more serious ones (e.g. "Live to Tell", and "Papa Don't Preach").          

Look how remarkably clothed Madonna is in the "Live to Tell" video!

Perhaps the greatest irony of all, though, is that Sister Cristina's rendition of the song actually winds up redeeming a song which was really about redemption in the first place; "I made it through the wilderness… somehow I made it through. Didn't know how lost I was until I found you…" This version even made it possible for me to imagine redemption and purity for Madonna herself, as if Sr. Cristina herself were showing Madonna the true way out of the wilderness. Yet in spite of all this, what has, in all likelihood, turned so many people off to the idea of this performance is the picture of seeing a nun in habit singing a song which has obvious sexual overtones. Nuns aren't supposed to talk or think like that!

Nevertheless, just because a nun (or a monk) takes a vow of virginity/celibacy does not mean that they are asexual. Yes, they shouldn't speak of such things flippantly, of course, but neither should they pretend that their vow is a repudiation of the beauty of human sexuality. Their devotion to God does not make them sexless- rather it means that they are in a sense, "saving themselves" for the True Wedding Feast of Heaven. Hence, when a sister sings about "love until the end of time", or "saving it (love) all for you" it actually prevents it from being the same old pop platitude, and restores it something that is actually true. And what brings this point home so powerfully in the video is that you can see that Sr. Cristina not only means the words, but her habit is a most profound testimony to that reality. Clearly the same cannot be said of the original video, which is little more than a four minute long "selfie".

Nevertheless, if you still find yourself immensely uncomfortable with the idea of a habited nun releasing a music video that possesses sexual connotations, simply consider just how tame all of this is in comparison to the testimony of St. Teresa of Avila, a female doctor of the Church who once rather candidly (and provocatively) described her own spiritual encounter with God in this way:

"Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share."  

Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"

Puts things into perspective, doesn't it?