Yes We Should Talk About Bodies

Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.

One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.

I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.

Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.

George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.

None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?

I have this suspicion that despite the intense scrutiny to which we hold our bodies and the bodies of others, we actually spend very little time paying attention to our bodies. We pay attention to how our bodies look, but not to how they feel or what they’re doing. And we ignore the ways that they affect us. We ignore that when we’re hungry we can’t think and we’re cranky. We ignore that being sleep deprived makes us nasty, angry people. And while there are times that we’re willing to point out how our bodies are ignored (for example when it comes to healthcare), we don’t necessarily talk about how embodiment affects our experiences of sexual and domestic violence, or of low self esteem, or of perfectionism, or all the other problems that women are facing today.

I’m willing to put down money that these things both have an impact on and are impacted by our bodies and our bodily experiences of them. Ignoring the actual, real bodies of women has led to a lot of problems in the past, from horrible medical care to rape. I suggest a reframing of feminism to a focus on bodies, but not bodies that are cut apart from our minds and seen as some kind of separate entity. Rather we need to spend some real time figuring out for ourselves what our bodies can do and how they’re frickin awesome (this may or may not involve looking at your body), as well as educating other people about what our bodies mean to us.

The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies.

If any person is going to be relatively happy and fulfilled they need to be able to pay attention to their body enough to pick up on cues that something is wrong or that things are going right (like hunger cues or a runner’s high), as well as to understand that we can affect our emotions with our bodies. Respecting our bodies, both male and female and other, is actually pretty damn feminist since the masculine ideal tends to be of a disembodied rational brain. Let’s imagine a world in which politicians take a minute to do a mindfulness meditation when they start getting out of control angry. I imagine it would be a way better world, but I also imagine that it’s a world that’s respecting the traditionally “feminine” virtues a little more.

It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.

 

You’re Not a Virgin (Probably)

As I am wont to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my sexuality lately, and as part of that process I’ve been talking with other people. Through these conversations I’ve had a number of people mention to me that they’re virgins. I don’t particularly like to contradict people’s self-identities, but every time I hear someone say this I cringe inside a bit and want to mutter “no you’re not”.

I’m not the first person to criticize the concept of virginity (oh hell am I not). It’s fairly well established in most feminist circles that the concept of virginity is a myth. Typically it’s used to refer to penetrative sex, but there are all sorts of people who have most certainly had sex but not penis in vagina sex (see: lesbians). There’s an obsession with the hymen, but rarely is the hymen actually broken during the first instance of PIV sex (often it’s already gone). At the end of the day, there’s good evidence that the whole concept of virginity is a holdover from patriarchal obsessions with female purity and the establishment of biological fathers.

I’m going to let all these other people explain why it doesn’t make sense to just say you’re a virgin (seriously, click the links, they are helpful), but what I’d rather focus on here is a.how unhelpful it is to tell someone you’re a virgin and b.how you can often inadvertently belittle the sexual experiences you’ve had with your partner(s) by using the word virgin.

So first and foremost, when you assert that you’re a virgin you are not actually telling your conversational partner a whole lot of information about you (except possibly that you don’t read nearly enough feminist theory). They’ll probably assume you mean penetrative sex, but what if you mean you’ve never held hands? What if you mean you’ve never achieved orgasm with another person? What if you mean you’ve had oral sex and anal sex but not penis in vagina sex? And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi (this reference  is really just for my Minnesotan folks out there).

So there are a lot of critiques of the concept of virginity that talk about how it plays into purity and larger patriarchal social constructs, but I want to point out one that’s plain and simple: calling yourself a virgin is straight out unhelpful and unclear. If you’re trying to communicate with a partner about your past sexual experiences or have a discussion about your feelings on sexuality with a friend, you give them almost no information when you say that you’re a virgin. You may even be misleading them as your definitions of virgin likely differ. The use of the word virginity in serious conversations gives everyone a pass to not have the hard discussions about what really constitutes sex and when we feel as if we’ve passed certain milestones and what elements of sex are more or less life changing and why. It circumvents all those real, honest questions and just says “we all know what I’m talking about right? No more questions asked, right? Let’s move on”. It also asks all the people in the conversation to participate in a variety of patriarchal myths about sex, the role of sex, and the morality of those who are or are not virgins, because in order to accept the term “virgin” as it currently stands you have to be willing to accept penetrative, PIV sex as an important milestone that other types are not.

All of that being said, it is probably useful to have a term for not having done a certain sexual activity before. So in my mind, we need to revamp the word virgin: virgin is actually just a phoneme. It needs a modifier. You could be a kissing virgin, or a making out virgin, or an anal sex virgin, or a frottage virgin (a word I just today discovered and am totally in love with), or any of a million other kinds of virgin. All of us are on a spectrum of sexual experience, and everything about making that linguistic shift is helpful to validating more types of sexuality, sexual experience, and sexual preference. It also means that if you’re having a conversation about your own sexuality with another person and you want to use the word virgin to describe your experience, you’ll actually be communicating clearly, which is something we could all use more of in conversation. I wouldn’t advocate to erase the word “virgin” from our vocabulary, but rather to be more thoughtful and careful with the ways in which we use it.

More specifically, using the word virgin in a sloppy way can have some seriously negative effects on your partners. I was talking to a friend recently who in the midst of having sex with someone was informed “by the way, I’m a virgin so I don’t want to have sex”. I have also been with individuals who have told me they were virgins after we had engaged in activities that by most definitions would be called sex (although they were not PIV). Conversing with your partner about what you mean by sex is generally a good thing to do before you’re having sex, but if you don’t, then being specific about what you have and haven’t done rather than assuming your partner has the same definition of sex can go a long way towards not being a jackass.

When you just say “I’m a virgin” you could be implying to your partner that you didn’t care about the activities you’ve engaged in up to this point, that you have really strong feelings about penetrative sex, or that you don’t want to accept that you’ve actually been intimate with them. It can absolutely feel like a denial when your partner does not recognize their actions as sex. It can feel as though they don’t actually want to have sex with you or be intimate with you or admit openly that they have done what they’ve done. It might feel as if they’re ashamed, or as if they simply didn’t care about what you were doing. There is a lot of baggage that comes along with the word, and it seems to be easier for everyone to just be a bit more specific and let your partner know what you have and haven’t done, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with rather than using the word “virgin” as a pass.

So next time you think about using the word virgin, consider the fact that you’re probably not a complete virgin. You’ve probably held hands or hugged or kissed. Be more specific. It’s better for everyone.

Consent and Neurodivergence

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but are neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.

What’s the Use in Universals?

I’ve been reading a book recently called Feminist Theory and Christian Theology  by Serene Jones. While some atheists might find it odd to read books on theology, I’ve always found it interesting and important to see what currents are moving in other people’s lives and in other groups of people, particularly when those groups of people have a great deal of power over politics and culture and are likely people I will interact with in my life. In addition, I find feminist theology absolutely fascinating, both to see how individuals interpret feminism within the context of their lives, and to see how people can perform some amazing mental gymnastics to make two contradictory ideas fit together.

However the first chapter or two of the book are simply about explaining some of the fundamentals of current feminist theory, and I have a bit of a bone to pick with some of the things that it had to say. It identified two main camps of feminism, essentialism and constructivism, and it identified pros and cons to each one. In order to find the middle ground and gain the pros of each, she introduces a variety of feminism called strategic essentialism, a position that allows for universals as long as we only use them for emancipatory purposes in women’s lives.

One of the ideas that undergirds this position is the idea that taking a radical constructivist position doesn’t leave any way for us to imagine a better future because it doesn’t have any normative force, and that it doesn’t provide a basis for community or agency.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me. Now first of all I suspect that Jones is using the term “universal” differently from the way I do. She seems to accepted that there can be bounded or constrained universals, universals that are accept as true for a particular time and place, or accepted temporarily with the knowledge that they probably aren’t true. This seems exactly the opposite of what a universal actual is. Definitionally a universal should be…well universal. It is not constrained, it holds in every time and every place. It holds throughout the whole universe.

Now it seems to me that no rational personal would invoke universals, because let’s be honest, the odds are against you, but when you believe in a God, they seem far more plausible and can be very appealing. They’re a cheat sheet to bring people together, to simplify things, to create identity…but are they really useful or even truthful when talking about feminism, oppression, and women’s experiences?

Jones suggests that we can temporarily adopt universals to give us forward momentum, while also recognizing that these universals will likely change, grow, or be replaced. It seems a bit like lying to oneself though. If you know that the world doesn’t actually have the universal that you’re holding to, but you still act in accordance with it, won’t you act dishonestly or improperly at some point? Won’t your actions not fit the facts? While sometimes it can be useful to take up a tool that we discard later, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and universals are sure as heck the master’s tools. If we’re going to make any progress, we have to be intellectually honest and work from the facts instead of using a pre-ordained conclusion that women should be emancipated to mold the facts to our beliefs. Lying is not an appropriate tool to use towards women’s lib, particularly not lying to ourselves.

Beyond the practical fact that temporarily taking up a universal we will later discard is essentially lying, it’s an extremely limited view of the world that sees only universals as the ways to build community and agency. To look at a real world example, psychology manages to find similarities between human beings in useful ways by looking to patterns and tendencies. While it’s not always an ideal system, it does help people create communities and identities, and no symptom in any diagnosis is universal. Something does not have to hold in every case to provide a sense of community, and oftentimes when we assert a universal to build a community, we end up silencing and excluding a good number of people who don’t fit into our preordained universal.

One of the wonderful things about many feminist communities is that they recognize and celebrate differences (and those that don’t better get their asses on that train, because that’s where the future is sitting right now). There are TONS of ways to create communities and connections between the people with differences, and perhaps it requires more time and effort, but you get a stronger community for it. You can find similar values with people who are otherwise completely different from you, or you can encounter someone radically different and grow. That often creates the strongest bonds because you grow towards each other and learn from each other. In addition, we all have uncountable facets to our selves. While I may not have the same thing in common with every person that I feel a sense of community with, I have SOMETHING in common with nearly every person on this earth. We can have overlapping identities that allow us to relate to a variety of people in different ways, and when you bring a group of people together, nearly all of them have some way to relate to each other. Again, it requires more work to find these similarities when they aren’t laid out for you as a universal, but it’s far more honest and it doesn’t open the door for us to be constrained or excluded by a false universal.

As for the question of normative force, there is a huge difference between a universal ethic and a claim of universality (of a train or behavior). Jones needs to make sure she clarifies the difference. When we suggest an ethic, we’re suggesting the ideal way everyone should behave, not how they actually do behave, or even how they’re all capable of or naturally drawn to behave. And yet despite there being no universal claims about the world as it is in an ethical claim (usually), they still have normative force.

In addition, we have found ethical systems in the past that even in their suggestions for the future don’t really rely on universal claims because they are built to be context sensitive (utilitarianism is the quintessential version of this, and although it has a few vaguely universal claims about people wanting pleasure, they’re pretty mild). When we suggest that only universals have normative force, we’re demeaning the ability of our fellow human beings to think in nuanced ways. We can imagine a better world simply by imagining choice for all, not by imagining one thing that will be ideal for everyone else. We can be flexible with our normative claims and be sensitive to context and difference. There is no need for the language of universals.

While I could see arguing for the differences between constructivism and essentialism by pointing to facts, I’m not sure that it makes sense to point to the pragmatics of each position. They are claims about the world, not claims about strategy, and it’s generally just a bad idea to put truth second to strategy.