Modernity claims another victim

I confess to an electic nostalgia — I recall rotary phones with fondness, and the note-passing that was en vogue during high school, when texting meant one wrote in block characters rather then cursive. Accordingly I mourn the passing of trades made obsolete by so-called advances in technology, and the loss of all the technical art and skill that go with them. Who knows now how the elevator attendant managed all those buttons? Is there any alive now who can repair the wiring guts of an antique rotary phone? Eras vanish.

capt_photo_1224071924862-1-0Therefore it is with great sadness that I learn that the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, has announced his intention to ban female genital mutilation. President Museveni addressed a gathering in his country’s eastern Karamoja district: “The way God made it, there is no part of a human body that is useless.” Nice to see that the President still supports the ancient art of theologically medieval, ad hoc rhetorical justification — the way God mad it, indeed! — even if advances in so-called medical science and moral ethics are forcing him to retire his country’s corps of genital mutilators.

Let me propose a means by which this revered craft can be preserved.Let’s relocate a colony of labia carvers and their apprentice scalpel handlers to, say, Vermont or New Hampshire. They can set up a craft community, give tours and daily demonstrations for the Luddite looky-loos — like Sturbridge Village, if instead of hammer and anvils the blacksmiths did their work with artfully jury-rigged genital mutilation tools of the kind displayed by the genital mutilator in the photo here. Oh forces of modernity. Is there no tradition or trade that you won’t destroy, no custom you will respect?


Abeyance in 1875, and in 1975

1875, from Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs by William Acton:

Women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally. It is true, I admit, … there are some few women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men, and shock public feeling by their consequences. I admit, of course, the existence of sexual excitement terminating even in nymphomania … but, with these sad exceptions, there can be no doubt that sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance, and that it requires positive and considerable excitement to be roused at all; and even if roused (which in many instances it never can be) it is very moderate compared with that of the male. [as quoted on p.36 of The Social Meaning of Human Sexuality by John Petras, 1978]

1975, from Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller:

Is it possible that there is some sort of metaphysical justice in the anatomical fact that the male sex organ, which has been misused from time immemorial as a weapon of terror against women, should have at its root an awkward place of painful vulnerability? Acutely conscious of their susceptibility to damage, men have protected their testicles throughout history with armor, supports and forbidding codes of “clean,” above-the-belt fighting. A gentleman’s agreement is understandable — among gentlemen. When women are threatened, as I learned in my self-defense class, “Kick him in the balls, it’s your best maneuver.” How strange it was to hear for the first time in my life that women could fight back, should fight back and make full use of a natural advantage; that it is in our interest to know how to do it. How strange it was to understand with the full force of unexpected revelation that male allusions to psychological defeat, particularly at the hands of a woman, were couched in phrases like emasculation, castration and ball-breaking because of that very special physical vulnerability. [Petras pp.195-6]

Does new Afghan law legalize rape in marriage?

The Telegraph is reporting that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has signed the Shiite Personal Status Law, legislation allow the Shia community to settle family law cases involving sexual relations within marriage, divorce, inheritance, rights of movement, and other matters,  according to Shia tradition — sharia law — at the expense of equal rights for women. From the article:

The law, which has not been publicly released, is believed to state women can only seek work, education or doctor’s appointments with their husband’s permission. […] Only fathers and grandfathers are granted custody of children under the law, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women. […]

The bill was passed in both houses of the Afghan parliament. Thus far, United Nations representatives have not been allowed to see a copy of the approved bill. [First seen at the JihadWatch blog]

Democracy: cheap and easy in a burka

“Wickedly subversive commentator” Mary Beard blogs as resident don (donna?) for the Times Online. In today’s column, she shares on the response she’s been giving to folks when they ask her what she thinks about the lot of women in Sudan. Well, not really — who has the time to take it all in when visiting a place for only a few days? So rather than making a report on females in Sudanese society, she passes “professional verdict” on Islamic dress. Fashion is as good as sociology in a pinch, in’t it? She writes:

There are some who wear burkas, most simply wear long skirts and long sleeves. This was the costume I adopted — not much flesh exposed, but no aggressive concealment. It only took a day before I rather relished the democracy (and the colour coded fun) of this kind of attire. It was great for a 54-year-old woman like me, and in fact a relief not to have to walk through the streets of Khartoum, confronted (as you are in Cambridge) with posses of 16-year-old size 8s, displaying their thighs and belly buttons (pierced).

She means Cambridge, UK, of course — a regular catwalk of tawdrish immodesty — but the same surely holds here in Mass. How excellent that Beard was able to relish the fabric democracy of Sudan, without having to suffer disenfranchisement and genital mutilation. If only all women in Sudan enjoyed the same luxury.

How not to properly satirize wife-beating

I would be grateful if someone could explain to me the redeeming satirical message underlying Robert Fiorentino’s instructional video, “How to Properly Slap a Woman.” I have three theories:

  • the makers of this video misunderstand the nature of satire, i.e. that it should embarass those who espouse the beliefs being lampooned
  • the makers of this video think misogynistic partner abuse is worth the chuckles
  • the makers of this video are so subtly criticizing a culture which views wife-beating as quaint, that their critique is escaping me completely.

Taleban closing girls’ schools in Pakistan

The Taleban has been closing girls’ schools in the northwest  Swat district of Pakistan, and threatening to blow up schools which do not comply. Scores of schools have already been burned to the ground. This is a further putting-into-effect of the policies of Mullah Fazlullah, whose fundamentalist brand of Islam is propagated through the region via his illegal FM radio broadcasts. This ‘Mullah Radio’, as he is known, “has long been exhorting people to stop sending their daughters to schools, which ‘inculcate Western values’” (

I’ve spent a few hours thinking over how to frame my response to these most recent crimes committed by the Taleban. Disgust is followed by a desire to act, but I am unsure what I could do from my Boston home that could keep safe any Pakistani teachers and students who want to continue their lessons despite the threats of these fanatics. What I’d like to do, at least, is to share my view of a root cause of such conflicts between “Western values” (the right of all children to an education, without regard to their gender) and Islam.

Mullah Radio can expect action when he declaims the Western brainwashing of Pakistani girls, because he has positioned himself effectively within the system of Muslim authority. In his whereabouts, moral authority derives from one’s scrupulous use of Koranic justification — really, interpretation — or at least from the perception that one is working out of that book. Humanism — and the gender equality which accompanies its more ideal manifestations — isn’t as attractive in the marketplace of ideals as revelatory religious traditions, which have claimed for their exclusive use the virtuous terminology of faithfulness: fidelity, truth, meaning, hope, charity. Until a humanism is articulated which somehow engages the latent cultural forces which associate credo with authority, the conflict between reasoning humanism and dogmatic institutions will be largely communicated through force, not communication. Western humanism has no seat at the table, in Pakistan or elsewhere, as long as adults continue to admit supernatural sources for moral claims. The moral claims of humanism (e.g., “all persons are created equal,” etc.) and the moral claims of theology (e.g., “Our way is the true way, as revealed to us exclusively by our Creator,” etc.) are simply incommensurable.

I don’t mean to suggest that religion need be eradicated before feminism can get girls in school throughout the world. Rather, I have a question: why must religion (the institution where communities pronounce, attempt to understand, and preserve their values) be supernatural? If there were a Church that could credibly command all the language of religion, as well as the right of religion to distinguish between right and wrong, then we would have an institution suitably equipped to oppose Mullah Radio.

Anyone who is freedom-loving, anti-fundamentalist, and interested in taking some kind of action, might start at

NB: This most recent incarnation of fundamentalist woman-hating is despicable… but unsurprising: Islam is not gender-equitable. However, some commentators are optimistic about making Islam compatible with a progressive feminism.

Filmmaker Hilary Brougher at Boston University

The Boston University Women’s Studies Program  and the Humanities Foundation present Hilary Brougher, winner of the  Milan Film Festival Best Director award, on campus to discuss her acclaimed film Stephanie Daley.

She will discuss her work as an acclaimed woman film director, on Wednesday November 19, 2008, from 4 – 6 pm in in room 206, 8 St. Mary’s Street, Boston (BU Central stop on the Green Line B-branch).

Join us also for a screening of Stephanie Daley on Monday, November 17, 2008, from 3 – 5 pm in room 211 in the College of Arts and Sciences classroom building, 725 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (BU East stop on the Green Line B-branch).

Synopsis: A young girl has murdered her unwanted baby.  Or has she?  Forensic psychologist Lydia Crane [Tilda Swinton] is assigned to Stephanie Daley’s [Amber Tamblyn’s] case.  Dispassionately, they discuss Stephanie’s life, a life from which Stephanie seems almost unnaturally detached. Meanwhile, Lydia’s own life is in turmoil-she herself is six months pregnant after a recent miscarriage, yet she’s ambivalent.  Her husband may be having an affair and she herself is drawn to another man, a friend, and to Stephanie. . . .

Stephanie Daley explores the ambivalence women experience with regard to pregnancy and motherhood through the connection between these two seemingly very different protagonists-a “lost” teenage girl and a professional woman on the cusp of motherhood.  The result is a brutally honest [and award-winning] film which never swerves from the troubling complexities it reveals.

Woman (n.): the major beneficiary of the “contract” we call marriage

The following message was forwarded to me from a friend, a relative of the author. This author is an older male, writing to his younger male relative, on the occasion of the younger man’s announcement of pending engagement. As a manifestation of widely-held but seldom admitted attitudes on marriage, I thought it would be of interest to a general audience. My observation is that unfortunate prejudice is very effectively propagated when it is mingled with perfectly sensible and well-intended teaching. Try to see for yourself which of the following points are sagacious, and which outrageously misogynist.

I just found out that you are on the verge of getting engaged. I am writing because I want to share some thoughts with you.

Let me explain. First, I don’t know anything about your fiancé and that’s O.K. because this letter is just about you and what marriage means to most guys. Also, I want you to know that my comments are being made with the best of intent. Marriage can be a good thing but you have to get into it with open eyes.

Things your parents won’t tell you about marriage (and if they did, you probably won’t listen any way):

  1. Almost without exception, the woman is the major beneficiary of the “contract” we call marriage. Believe me, in a vast majority of the marriages, the mans life style is diminished. Are you ready for this? Have you had time for yourself and your career? A clear majority of women are career enders. Their drama gets in the way of the mans success.
  2. Does your chosen mate complement you? Would this person be with you if you were a pizza deliver man? They won’t tell you this, but most girls in the 22 – 26 age bracket are in a rush to the alter. All their friends are doing it, why not them? Would you be the target of their desire if you were delivering pizza’s? I see a soul mate each week here in Southern California. I’ve come to the conclusion that love is mainly a function of availability. Have you been available?
  3. Almost all women view men as a “meal ticket”. The man is their ticket to a better life and security. You, Mr. Just-graduated-from-Yale-Law-School, are one hell of a meal ticket. Money will never be your problem. And that’s a problem for you. Without proper planning, you could find yourself funding an ex-spouse quite handsomely. I see it every day. That won’t happen to me you say! Fact: 50% of all marriages end within the first 5 years….it’s 60% here in California. Have you protected your parents? Remember, marriage is a legal contract. It’s one thing when two people who are flat broke and whose parents are near broke get married (me), you are in a whole other world.
  4. Pre-nup. Even Derek know this. Get one. Use separate attorneys. The court won’t recognize the agreement if it is drawn up by one attorney. Also, do not set a date before the agreement is signed. If you set the date first then push the pre-nup, the court will rule that she signed under duress and rule it void. Then it’s pay day for the woman of your dreams who gave you the best 60 months of her life. What about your 60 months? Key pre-nup elements? She gets 0% claim on any inheritance. She gets $0 in alimony regardless of the situation. She leaves with only the money she earns or brought into the marriage less 50% joint expenses. What do you say when she won’t sign? You say, “I guess you are not mature enough to get married.” Your such a sweet ticket, she’ll sign and try to renegotiate. Is she bringing any assets to the table that you can put in the bank? If not, a pre-nup is beyond a must have item. Who’s her Daddy? You could be for longer that you can believe if you don’t plan.
  5. Still want to plow ahead? Only give a gold band. Why? Go back to Fact in item 3 above. Start with a gold band. When you hit the 5 year mark then get a solitaire with a diamond that can be remounted at the 10 year mark. At that point spend what you want.
  6. Where to live? Only live in an apartment. After 5 years, then consider a house. Enjoy the freedom of being able to do what you want. I was able to travel the way I did because I had freedom to move. Also homes are a distraction and you need to focus on your career.
  7. Children? Only after you hit the 5 year mark. Each child is worth 216 monthly support payments. In your case, these would be very large monthly support payments. Can you adopt me?
  8. Life insurance? Forget it until there are kids. If a car can be replaced regardless of how you treat it, then why take care of it? If you are worth more dead than alive, why should the wife look out for you? A meal ticket (you) that could end at any moment will be protected and maintained.
  9. The bedroom? Things always start off white hot and over time cool down. This is natural. The rate of decline is a direct function of “attitudes, conditions and issues.” The more “attitudes, conditions and issues” there are on day one, the faster things will certainly cool down. Again, going back to Fact in item 3 above, 50% of the marriages go from 100% to 0%+pay off within 60 months. Believe me, not one of those guys thought it would happen to them. It did. Ask my brother.

Johnny Carson said it best when he commented about marriage. He said, “Man does not know the meaning of the word lonely until he gets married.” Funny, in baseball, they say that pitchers don’t become great until they are injured. The message is the same. You have got to take care a yourself first. This isn’t being selfish.

Whatever path you chose, it will always be a gamble. Minimize risk and make informed choices. Don’t let choices make you.

A Lot of Big Boobs

Sheyla Hershey believes bigger breasts will reveal her inner beauty, just as a bigger telescope reveals deeper secrets of the cosmos. What drives her to pump more and more silicone into her chest? Well, she’s “got a dream inside” — a dream “to look better each day, every day,” and “it’s good when you can make your dream come true.” To that end, she’s just completed her eighth breast augmentation surgery, and now carries two record-breaking, seam-busting liters of boob goo in each exaggerated mammary.

How readily her case demands to be explained by the simplesboobst explanation: a conspiracy between superficial media culture (whose distortions of the healthy female form pollute even the youngest minds) and unscrupulous plastic surgeons(ever ready to ignore the Hippocratic oath in favor of that more fitting Greek icon, Pluto, captain of wealth and death). Whatever reasons led her to first consider chest enhancement, her motivations since have been corrupted, co-opted, by a self-image disorder. However, instead of working through the moral and medical background of Hershey’s situation, let’s instead look at the responses to her situation left by Internet users at two different but predictably similiar articles: one from ABC News and the other from the Australian paper The Daily Telegraph. First, the comments left by the largely American readers of ABC’s hard-hitting news piece:

  • “Natural is better. Scientific devices cannot make a woman more attractive. A romantic figure is defined, sleek, and smooth.”
  • “Natural of any size are great. 😉 Certainly if they’re too large a woman should consider a reduction if they’re affecting her health.”
  • “I love how this article brings out the comments from all of the large breasted readers, “I have a 36 H naturally, I am naturally a 44 DD, my size G breasts, a natural 44 DDD, and I’m a 34 G”. I love it. How do I meet you women!?!?! I love large breasted women!!!”
  • “I don’t care to see the freak show’s implant canisters, but the stock photo for this story caused me to click 🙂 niiiice” [This photo is pictured above -Eds.]
  • “I would rather see a fine looking set of long legs.”
  • “I am a male who loves breasts of any size but I don’t advocate implants and recommend that women who are too large get reductions. They should not ruin your health. All of them are fabulous in my book”
  • “If that is her in this picture then why change them. They are very nice already.”

What did Australian readers have to say?

  • “Does being fake, false and fraudulent make her a “real” woman?”
  • “Well, you’ve given her her 5mins of fame. Maybe that’s what she wanted. Maybe the best help that we can give her is to not report it.”
  • “Ridiculous. What makes her think they look better? Most people would laugh and stare, not think they look good.”
  • “What will she do and how will she cope in another 10 years or so, when her breasts flatten out and droop down to her knees ? Or maybe she doesn’t have the brains to see that far ahead?”
  • “Why would a healthy young woman push her limits on her health by enlarging her breasts to such a size. Its ugly and just plain stupid!”
  • “Well she will get into the limelight with no talent . She will need steel supports on wheels to transports these puppies”
  • “my natural E’s are plenty big enough and give me enough back pain. i couldn’t imagine having to drag something that size around – i could also think of better things to spend my money on! it is hard enough to buy a pretty E cup bra let alone FFF! what a fool!”

Don’t trust my editorial selection — follow the links above, go to the sites yourselves, and tell me if you agree with the characterization I’ve indicated here, that American readers are grotesquely pro-tit, showing little regard for the person behind the flesh, while Australians show a laudable skepticism towards both her decision to Go Big, and the media’s decision to devote attention to the topic. None of this is sufficient data from which extrapolate sweeping cultural generalizations. Instead, I’ll just close out the discussion with two observations.

One: it is better to be silent and not leave online comments, and let people wonderif you are a boob, than to leave thoughtless, misogynistic comments that prove it.

Two: while the foundational principle of liberal society is the freedom to do with our bodies what we please, regardless of how the exercise thereof may displease, discomfort, or disgust our neighbors, Sheyla Hershey is not actually exercising her freedom with this surgical obsession. No — she is powerless, clearly, to resist the compulsion to her enlarge her breast size, even so far past the point of safety. Compelled by what? By psychological and societal factors, in the absence of which, she certainly would make different decisions regarding the body it is her right to control.  This powerlessness, this debasement, is what we need to keep in mind as we consider her situation, not whether she is more attractive with or without the sacs of silicone beneath the overstretched tissues of her chest.

feminist thought and action at boston university