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Posts Tagged ‘jessica valenti’

by Julia

March 4 was The National Day of Action to Defend Education, and at Maryland we took action to create the kind of education we desire. We held a series of workshops in the Art-Sociology building’s atrium on feminism in academia, hip hop and society, sports and education, the prison-industrial complex, and whatever else is in our everyday lives but is little discussed in our classes. I am fortunate enough to be enrolled in several courses this semester which deal with issues of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, and other inequalities which are prevalent in our system today, and I wish to share just a sample of the progressive and intellectually stimulating topics from my 300-level Women’s Studies class on the Sociology of Gender.

Foucault and Purity Balls

On March 4, we discussed the intersection of Michel Foucault and sexuality in society, specifically concerning purity balls. For further information on purity balls, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, as well as these links. These often federally funded events represent the hegemony of several institutions on the bodies and brains of young women, a phenomenon which Foucault links to the definition of the Self solely by one’s sexuality.

“Since Christianity, Western civilization has not stopped saying, ‘To know who you are, know what your sexuality is about.’”

-Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

“Sexuality as a term did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century. What had been some 300 years earlier just so many disparate urges, inclinations, and activities were delineated as a problematic set of traits and drives that supposedly define a central aspect of human nature…[and]…define us as sexual objects.”

– C.G. Prado, Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy

Because the Self is a social and cultural construct, the hegemony of certain institutions in society and their obsession with sexuality led to the definition and eventual policing of our bodies in terms of our sexuality. The Church, specifically, pursued its their goal of disconnecting sex from pleasure starting in the 19th century, and began to define sex as a sin punishable by eternal damnation – allowing religious morality to permeate all forms of privacy, so that people ended up policing their own choices for fear of retribution. Our sexual selves are also managed by the government and medical communities, under the guise of the “public good.”  In short, the advent of this new Self definition represented the institutionalization of sexuality.

Purity balls, then, represent a fairly recent evolution of this institutionalization. As I see it, underlying these ceremonies is a great fear that the expression of women’s sexualities will in some way topple the order of society which, for the past 200 years, has recognized the power of individual expression to the independence of many social groups. Most tragically, this trend of hypersexualization essentializes young women so that they are defined by a single issue – their sexuality. How sad that equal focus is not placed on their education, advancement in male-dominated academic fields, or protection from the patriarchy instead of from themselves.

Young women who express their heterosexual desires – not to mention those women who *gasp* align themselves somewhere else on the sexual spectrum – are forced to suppress their wants by social institutions. At the same time, however, young women are also hypersexualized from a very young age because of this very same trend of defining the Self not by one’s thoughts or actions, but solely by one’s sexual expression.

Foucault challenges us to not only recognize who we are sexually – gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc – but also to deconstruct why many of us identify so strongly with our sexual selves in the first place. 200 years ago, few defined themselves by sexual expression, and to claim otherwise is to lay a false metanarrative of sexual expression on history.

Foucault’s strongest attribute in terms of deconstructing sexuality is his ability to question exactly whose ends our identifications serve.

“The central issue…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue [is] the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.*’”

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

*Foucault defines “discourse” as simply a discussion among people, but as a discussion that “society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices.” The discursive power of the narrative of purity produces certain types of individuals with repressed sexualities.

The hypersexualized young woman who is forced into purity balls is certainly not serving her own desires or interests, but most likely those of her parents, and religious leaders. This definition of women by their sexuality and “purity” is detrimental to all involved. It hurts young women who learn to measure their worth based on a single issue. It hurts young men who struggle to see their sisters, cousins, friends, and partners for more than their sexual purity. It hurts society because this focus on the sexuality of young women impedes the recognition of so many other facets of a women’s mind. Ultimately, all parties lose out, but none so much as the women who fall prey to the policing of their minds and bodies by a society which strategically subordinates them to maintain dominance.

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by Julia

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the incredible importance of fostering a sense of community based on common experiences. From campus activism to personal relationships, exposing commonalities (especially through the accessible application of theory) is perhaps the most effective means of transforming society. This realization also results in anger at the inane portrayals of so-called female commonalities in popular culture. Remember the Bechdel Test? In the real world, do women really “mediate their relationships through discussion of men”, as is portrayed in mainstream consumer media? Discussions of finding “the one” dictate female interaction in music, film, and television – think Sex and the City. Is realistic female interaction really Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha?

According to the Marxist-feminist philosopher Nina Power in her new book, One Dimensional Woman, “if all discussions with ‘friends’ are merely mediating stepping-stones in the eschatological fulfillment of romantic purpose [in popular media],” friendships in reality are bound to reflect that trend as well, especially if the dominant portrayal of female interaction is one centered around our relationships with men. I disagree with Power, and I think she gives the media too much credit (and also imposes some pretty ridiculous generalizations on the interactions of her fellow females). While it is true that some women (especially in Western societies) center their interactions over discussions of men, exposing this phenomenon, instead of indicting it, should be the cause of any feminist genuinely devoted to created an inclusive feminist movement. Assuming that your fellow woman is a vapid dude-obsessed, pink-clad, consumerist cog is not going to do our sex any favors. It is detrimental, it is elitist, and frankly, it is offensive.

Power writes a scathing critique of feminist writer Jessica Valenti, mostly because of Valenti’s effort to bring feminism to the masses. Power likens this effort to capitalism – rendering feminism yet another product du jour to be consumed by women. I’ve got my issues with capitalism, for sure, but if feminist theory is made most accessible through the identification of common experiences (working within the current capitalist reality of millions of women), then I see no problem. Also, for the record, Power only references Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism, a book explicitly written to expose for a skeptical young woman the commonalities of women in society – entry-level feminism. As Valenti writes, every woman, regardless of whether she’s read Butler or Foucault, should be able to relate to feminism. Because it does permeate society. And the adoption of a feminist lens is an incredibly important gateway towards comprehending greater feminist issues, and even – shocker of all shockers – the writing of theorists like Power. Valenti is not endorsing capitalist consumerism as a means of advancing feminism. She is using our commonalities (including our semi-indoctrinated desire for fashion and chocolate) to flip consciousnesses, with the ultimate goal being a feminist revolution.

This brings me to a fabulous piece published on Feministe about the importance of female friendships to the future of feminism. As much as society tells us that women only talk to one another about men and marriage, we all know this isn’t the case. Instead of seeking out healthy conversation with other women, however, many of us turn to men for companionship. I know I have been guilty of this association. I also attended an all-girls school for seven years, and have come to realize the incomparable value of intelligent conversation with other women. Female friendships create not only a sense of companionship unobtainable elsewhere, but, as Chally writes, they can also exist as an “immensely powerful feminist act.”

“It is a strengthening of bonds between women where patriarchy has sought to keep us apart, rivals, without coherent community. In forming such connections there’s a centring of women’s wishes and concerns. That is, it’s about women valuing women, a rare emotional space in which we aren’t considered less than (that is, if all parties are doing friendship right!) or centring men.”

When women are allowed to truly interact with one another, they will quickly dismantle what Audre Lorde deems the “only social power open to women” within the patriarchy: maternity. Shared common experiences – even those that include discussions of men (!!!) – will inevitably expose greater commonalities. Let me reiterate: the only way to successfully dismantle the patriarchy (and capitalism) is to foster the greatest sense of community. Taking from de Beauvoir, women cannot “expect our emancipation to come from the general revolution” – rather, we have to create our own. And inclusion is imperative in this transformation. My advice: give a female companion a copy of Full Frontal Feminism. Talk to her about it, let her see the misogyny in the products she consumes, the media she worships. Invite her to a Women’s Collective meeting. For god’s sake, don’t be elitist, recognizing that we all come to feminist realizations from different places. Allow her to recognize the value of the genuine feminist analysis that only other women can provide. Then, and only then, can an inclusive discussion of theory take place. Anything else is exclusionary and counter-productive to a collective revolution.

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