Monday, June 28, 2010

feminism as false consciousness

While attending college, I had a lot of fundamentalist Christian friends. I never understood why they CHOSE to participate in it. I could think of a lot of reasons but I'm going to focus on one...relationships. So in their Christian circle, the pastor believed in dating with marriage in mind and no premarital sex. I don't why my guy friends would agree to this. No sex before marriage?! What?! Dating a girl with marriage in mind? Why would you put so much pressure on yourself and have this timeline looming over you (typically these friends got married within two years at the average age of 25). I didn't understand.

The girls on the end, it made more sense. But they had to subscribe to stuff like this:

1. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

2. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

3. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
Serious, right there in the Bible, women must submit to men. In an age of equal rights and feminism, why would my college-educated women friends agree to this? But slowly I realized young women have more to gain from the Christian framework than young men. Why?

No premarital sex and a commitment to marriage before the relationship starts. No hook-ups, no friends with benefits, no nothing. "You want sex, propose to me." And it worked--one by one, my guy friends got married. Of course, they didn't just get married because of sex; they got married because they loved their girlfriends and they saw a future together. But because there was this mutual understanding that we're dating to get married, the path to marriage was there. Girls weren't wasting their time in dead-end relationships and awkward ambiguous breakups and rebound relationships.

The idea of a counterculture is ultimately based on a mistake. At best, countercultural rebellion is pseudo-rebellion: a set of dramatic gestures that are devoid of any progressive political or economic consequences and that detract from the urgent task of building a more just society. In other words, it is rebellion that pro­vides entertainment for the rebels, and nothing much else. At worst, countercultural rebellion actively promotes unhappiness, by undermining or discrediting social norms and institutions that actually serve a valuable function. In particular, the idea of coun­terculture has produced a level of contempt for democratic politics that has consigned most of the progressive left to the political wilderness for over three decades.

In order to see where it all went wrong, one need look no further than the controversy that erupted over an enormously popular lit­tle dating manual called The Rules. Published in 1996 by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, the book was noted primarily for the retro­grade character of much of the advice it offered. Women were instructed to play hard to get, to insist that the man pay for dinner, to avoid casual sex and to never, ever tell a man what to do. Femi­nists responded with outrage. "I fought in the trenches for years so that my daughter wouldn't have to grow up in the same repressive, sexist culture that I had to deal with," they said. And this is how she repays me? By voluntarily adopting the same backward rules that we fought so desperately to overcome?"

Yet with all of the furor that accompanied this episode, the central lesson was missed. What the popularity of The Rules shows is that bad rules are better than no rules. Feminists were quite right to fight tooth and nail against the old rules that used to govern rela­tions between the sexes. Those rules were based upon the assump­tion that the man would go on to become the breadwinner, the woman a housewife. As a result, these rules actively contributed to the reproduction of that pattern. But instead of trying to replace these rules with better ones—ones that would have put men and women on an equal footing—too many early feminists bought into the myth of counterculture. They assumed that the very exist­ence of rules was a symptom of the oppression of women. In order for men and women to be equal, therefore, they concluded that it would be necessary to abolish the rules, not reform them. "Free love" was proposed as a substitute for "going steady." Love was like a beautiful flower, they claimed, which should be left free to unfold in its own natural way, without the artificial constraints of social convention.

Thus the sexual revolution had the effect of destroying all of the traditional social norms that had governed relations between the sexes, without replacing them with any new ones. What it left was a complete void. As a result, my generation, which came of age in the late '70s, was forced to invent for itself some way of dealing with all the tricky problems of adolescence. The result was not lib­eration, it was hell. The absence of settled rules meant that no one knew what to expect from anyone else. For a bunch of adolescents, this was deeply anxiety-provoking. We never knew where we stood with one another, or what we were supposed to do next. Anything that resembled "dating" was deeply uncool and therefore out of the question. So you couldn't ask a girl out. You could try to bump into her at a party, maybe hang out, get wasted and then have sex. "Going out" was something that began only afterward, and even then it was always accompanied by ironic scare quotes.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that so many young women reached out for The Rules. Many feminists had already noticed, early on, that "free love" had opened the door to the sexual exploitation of women in our society on a massive scale. The initial feminist assumption had been that because men were the oppressors, all of the rules governing relations between the sexes had to have been rigged to the man's advantage. The fact that many of these rules were obviously for the defense of women, designed to protect them from men, somehow escaped notice. Camille Paglia caused a furor in the '8os when she pointed out that many of these fussy old social conventions actually had the rather important function of reducing the risk of rape. Similarly, the old "shotgun wedding" rule forced men to take some responsibility for the children they fathered. The erosion of this norm has been one of the main factors contributing to the widespread feminiza­tion of poverty in the Western world.

In fact, if you were to ask a group of men to think up their ideal set of dating rules, they would probably choose something very much like the "free love" arrangement that emerged out of the sexual revolution. You only have to tour a gay bathhouse to see how men choose to organize their sex lives when they don't have to cater to feminine sensibilities. Yet these possibilities were all ignored, primarily due to the power of the countercultural analy­sis: women are an oppressed group, it was argued, and social norms are the mechanism of oppression. Therefore the solution is to abolish all the rules. Freedom for women thus becomes equated with freedom from social norms.

In the end, this was a disastrous equation. Not only did it set up a completely unobtainable state as the ideal of liberation, but it cre­ated a tendency to dismiss as "co-optation" or "selling out" any acceptance of reforms that might actually lead to tangible improvements in women's lives. How could we have gone so far astray?

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