I exploit women like McDonald’s exploits hamburger.
— Larry Flynt
One term, before settling in to write my thesis, I took two women’s studies courses, “Feminist Ethics,” and “Women and Religion.”
Only one man registered for the “Feminist Ethics” course. He was a teacher at an all girls school. His undergraduate major was in philosophy. He had a law degree, had been an attorney, left corporate law to teach, and was working on a Master of Theological Studies; he also wrote. The short version — he was no longer career fast tracking, so he had the luxury of taking a “girl’s class.” A young man who was a graduate student in philosophy also attended the course. He audited. Registering wasn’t a priority.
No men registered for the “Women and Religion” course. When the prof went over the syllabus, the young men who were shopping during the first class walked out, one shook his head and mumbled something as he left.
Two “women’s studies” courses, two males in one class.
Yet I have been in “men’s studies” courses for most of my adult life. Philosophy. Literature. The Study of Religion. Art History.
Written by men, professionally studied and taught, mostly by men. Yes, the status quo has shifted. Still, my adult life has been intellectually dominated by what I’d like to call “men’s studies,” because it’s his-story writ in the intellectual disciplines, where one by necessity gains her cultural literacy and professional lexicon. A woman professor in literature once told me that universities assume the “ghettoization of women’s studies” — the department is considered a polite dead end within the system.
I told friends, mostly men, during the throes of my graduate career, “I am so sick of being in men’s minds, I could scream.” I was drowning, feeling as though I was literally living in men’s heads: reading men’s writings, reading men writing about men (a.k.a. “scholarship”), writing about men’s writing, then writing about the men who write about men and their writing. Then earning my living by listening to men’s stories, and subsequently getting into their heads. No pun intended.
One of the requisite graduate seminars for Comparative Literature scholars was an intensive survey course in criticism. Mostly European, white, and, of course, male. About 35 or more critical perspectives that we were required to metabolize in order better understand theory, or some such thing. Two women, two Americans, who were also the women, no African-Americans, no Latino/as, no Asians, no diversity. When I pointed out the skew to my beloved and trusted mentor, who happened to be teaching the seminar that term, he gave me a blank stare, followed by a “probably not something you should bring up too often,” and a weak apology for the curriculum’s anachronisms.
This was the same trusted advisor who told me not to mention that I was an “erotic artist” on my Ph.D. applications. He was the [male] professor. I lacked courage. I listened. The failures were guaranteed.
The ironies are so loud, they deafen. More on this, in time.
If you will, let’s return to my “women’s studies” course.
During a class discussion in “Women and Religion,” the subject of “female circumcision” came up.
“Female circumcision” seems to me a grievous misnomer. One may persuasively argue that removing a male child’s foreskin is an undesirable and arcane practice. But there’s a world of difference between hacking off a girl’s clitoris with a knife, a machete, a piece of sharpened stone, whatever might be available, and the surgical removal of the foreskin on an infant male.
The equivalent of “female circumcision” would be hacking off the underside of the glans, if not the glans itself. The glans’ underside and the clitoris share the same nerve density and pleasure receptor function. When a female is “circumcised” it’s rarely only the removal of her clitoral hood; usually, the entire clitoris is removed, often violently, and without sanitation.
I unapologetically prefer the term, “genital mutilation.” Describe reality as it is. “Circumcise” comes from the Latin circumcidere, “to cut around.” Rarely is the clitoral hood cut around; rather, the practice exists to annihilate female pleasure, and protect the woman’s family from future shame. To call it anything other than “genital mutilation” is sloppy, a disgusting if comforting politically correct nod.
So the topic of “female circumcision” and religious practices in nonwestern cultures came up. To my astonishment, and I do mean astonishment, I heard sexually liberated and self-identified “feminists” support a [male] culture’s right to systemic violence. Without blinking, I saw them build a consensus defending “female circumcision,” in deference to cultural respect and cooperative international relations. There were a few hold outs, but most agreed it was imprudent and shameful for the economically privileged [read: western white male class system] to tell others what to think, what to do, and how to behave. “It’s really arrogant of us,” one explained.
“Truth” is a trap for the confident. I consider it slippery at best, but I recognize that the idea holds a permanent, meaningful location on most people’s mattering maps.
Meaning, that’s what matters.
The “truths” of these women eluded me. They were simply living in reflexive socialized mores, established mental networks of right and wrong created by family and culture, Harvard’s so-called liberalism notwithstanding, while bantering an empty notion of respect, however meaningful. To them.
But their truths and realities held little meaning for my life. When one mentioned to me after class that she was training with her father to run a half-marathon, my mind flashed to a client, who had told me that he was training with his college aged daughter to run a half-marathon. I froze.
No, I didn’t believe my classmate was his daughter; but in that moment the insidious if subtle machinations and sweeping ramifications of socialization, sexual politics, and class, and how these invisible realities play day-in-day-out in our lives were epiphanic. She could have been his daughter, and, in a perverse synchronicity, I could have been having a conversation with the child of a client who the week before revealed his marriage’s many intimate failings, before entertaining a fantasy with extraordinarily violent underpinnings.
Accident? I think not. Correlation may not be causation, but socialization usually hides behind truth’s intellectual respectability. For this reason, the moral awareness diplomat argues against intervention for the lives and bodies of other women, because society’s truths keep her safe. Her father, meanwhile, confesses to his phone whore his need to humiliate several types of women, mitigating the pain of his safe guarded domestic life. The systemic violence lurks, in the father’s fantasy, in the daughter’s diplomacy.
If you will indulge the strained analogy, privileged father and surrogate daughter suggest the wholesale socialization of men and women, in a comprehensive system that is economic, not moral.
For this reason, male career fast trackers don’t enroll in annexed women studies courses; most professional capital is still achieved in the study of intellectual his-story; burgeoning women scholars defer to gendered political norms, e.g., “we can’t tell those [men] how to behave, it’s wrong.”
And I kissed my Ph.D. good-bye.
Not because I believe that sex for sale is wrong. Far from it; I possess hubris because I believe that I see behind other people’s “truths.” I kissed my Ph.D. good-bye because in my own moral lapse, I accepted advice that the system couldn’t handle the vocation that has given my life meaning. I understood the system’s hypocrisy, and I acknowledged that if I were to get a shot at its benefits, I needed to heed a man’s counsel.
Economics not morality dictated my decision.
What does all of this have to do with Larry Flynt? I hope you’ll check back.