I live in a subdivision where my grandmother used to live, and I have planted Eastern Red Cedars, Spruce Pine, Southern Longleaf Pine, Fringe tree, Tupelo, Bottlebrush Buckeye…a bazillion native plants since I moved here last year basically. In my subdivision though, there is a man who makes his money off of a huge piece of land he keeps as a sod field. I have such hatred inside me for that sod field. It sustains nothing; it is a lifeless expanse of turf grass and he apparently tells the neighbor across from him (who happily obliges, and who shared this with me today) to use pesticides to keep clover and dandelions from growing in his lawn so that they don’t spread to the precious sod. It’s all about having a useless manicured landscape, which is the furthest thing in the world from what I want. I keep my yard like my fingernails: neat but unmanicured, and chemical free.

Today my neighbor was asking me for advice about how to pull up poison ivy (which wasn’t, it was virginia creeper, but I told him even if poison ivy was there, it’s good for birds and some insects, like the showy Emerald Moth which uses it to make it’s larva on and he said, “Oh, well, we don’t care about that…” Well, what the hell is wrong with that person?! What an attitude to take, I wish I had just screamed at him, “You’re thoughtless and i have no use for you!” but I didn’t. Sometimes I’m a nice person, but I can also be angry, especially at people who don’t care about wildlife.

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This is a comment I wrote on Unpious, in response to a story written by a formerly religious author about his experience going to strip clubs; I wanted to articulate how the feminist criticism of the sex industry differs from a religious one, so I did that, and I’d like to save it here.

Most men who read this site and consider themselves to be rejecting the principles of Judaism do not also consider that American society is fundamentally and deeply based on Judeo-Christian belief; nor do they consider the fact (and it is fact) that Judaism is one of the most patriarchal schools of thought out there–it’s always been part of the Jewish male (who wrote both the Torah and Talmud exclusively, no female input) mindset that men are entitled to the sexual use of a woman’s body, and that men are also entitled to more than one woman, that there’s an obligation for a woman to be faithful to her husband that doesn’t compel a man in the same way; this has nothing to do with innate male drives, and everything to do with the fact that property and land rights, as well as last name, were passed through the side of the father among the Israelites–the Jewish patriarch wanted to be damned sure he wasn’t raising another man’s “seed” and so, strict controls had to be placed on the sexuality of Jewish women.

There’s the story of Tamar acting like a harlot with Judah, and plenty of others in the Torah and Talmud, that, at the very least, imply Jewish men were considered entitled to use women in prostitution if they wanted or “needed” to; this was better than “spilling seed” as well; if contemporary Jewish men–religious and non–continue to equate women with sex, to use women for sexual release, to use economic leverage to get sex from women who would not otherwise have sex with them, then, in my opinion, the least they can do is stop telling themselves this is somehow “violating” patriarchal thought or the principles of Jewish belief–these men, though seemingly unaware of it, remain stuck in the same mindset that women were created by a male god for men’s (their) pleasure, and to service their sexual needs, and that they themselves as males were somehow “made” by god (ex religious men switch out biologically determinant arguments about men and women’s sexual nature and “unconscious drives”–and we can thank Freud for a lot of that, who was not immune to the influence of Judaism himself–for god, but basically, they are still falling back on the argument that some “higher power” beyond their personal control “makes them do it”–meanwhile, not all men go to strip clubs, and certainly before the sexual objectification of women became as normalized and rampant as it is nowadays in pop culture, not all men used to)

I’m not a theist; my problem with men going to strip clubs is not about sex outside marriage, but with coerced sex; sex obtained through coercion means the woman isn’t having sex with you for her own sexual pleasure, & she wouldn’t have sex with you unless there were some external factor pressing her to do so–be it physical force, as in flat out rape, or be it economic force, as in pornography and prostitution which cater overwhelmingly to a male consumer pool; we live in a culture that titilates men CONSTANTLY with sexually subordinating, graphic imagery of women; men must learn the message that “this is what a woman IS and this is what a woman really WANTS–though you may have to ‘unleash her hidden nature’ or some such bs); no man in this culture is immune; and I don’t just mean porn, I mean the advertising we all see daily; women are socialized to believe we have no worth unless men find us sexually attractive (and you can see this clearly by how older women are reviled and treated as undesirable in this culture) and men are socialized to believe that happiness will come to them from fucking as many women as possible; both are empty promises, of course, but American culture is so saturated by the sex industry at this point that I don’t think most people, men or women, ever feel there are any other options.

Add to that the fact that men are encouraged not to feel and not to be connected with any of their emotions except maybe anger, and you get males who are uncomfortable with emotional connection in relationships; I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe this is some “innate” trait of men (though I know the Talmud says women are just more spiritual and moral and passive and blah blah–which, again, is PATRIARCHAL THOUGHT); I think men who feel lonely and alienated, from women especially (& I have to say, nearly every ex chassid male I’ve known has had some very painful rejection from the women in his life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of them seem to feel literally afraid of women and/or women’s displeasure with them as a result), often turn to buying women in prostitution of some form or other; it seems like a quick fix–I don’t have to satisfy her because the money will take care of that–but then, the narrator of this story doesn’t sound like a very happy person, and I’d argue that’s because the human need (not a male or female need but a HUMAN one) to be personally known and accepted never really goes away)–and that tone I appreciate in this story; he seems to search for ways to blame the woman or accuse her of “manipulating him” somehow of course, but is that to assuage his own guilt? Really, what is she supposed to do? American culture says women are whores, that we’re supposed to be, and then men get mad when we believe this message about ourselves, or when we sell sex, playing the part men created for us in the interest of survival? Why wouldn’t we adapt, seriously? For a whole lot of women, the message that sex is all that we have to offer and all that’s worthwhile about us is drilled in constantly, & most women who end up working in strip clubs don’t have happy histories with the men in their lives either; many are abuse survivors; their “work” is basically just a way for them to keep reabussing themselves.

“It’s a healthy urge, I said to myself, as Cathy, the cute Hispanic receptionist, put another pile of mail on my already overflowing stack. Men all over the world feel the same, nothing unusual about it. Or perverted. I’m just healthy and normal, looking for what every male has looked for since the dawn of the Y chromosome.”

This is an interesting passage to me; the narrator seems to be trying to convince himself that thinking of women as just so much fuckable commodity is what he wants, and consistent with the person he wants to be; yet, again, he seems conflicted, at the very least, and ultimately dissatisfied with the time he spent at a strip club, or else why wouldn’t he keep going? And of course, the last sentence isn’t true–there’s a whole history of cultures that predated ancient Israel where women occupied a much higher status than they have for the past 5000 years or so, despite Y chromosomes being fully present; Gerda Lerner’s “The Creation of Patriarchy” is a great, thoroughly secular, read on that for those interested, but, bottom line, for a long time men survived really quite well without a multi-billion dollar a year sex industry to sell them access to women; that proves it’s very possible for a man to live without pornography, strip clubs, prostitution, etc. and it’s possible now too, (though I agree with one of the comments above, that this can really become an ADDICTION for many men, and, if a man has an addiction or sexually compulsive behavior, it doesn’t mean he’s “evil” or “bad” but habituated and dependent on a stimulus that works powerfully on the human brain; if he wants to stop, it’s a long process that requires a lot of courage, support, and self-forgiveness, and it’s very hard to do alone).

The notion that the sale of sexual access to women’s bodies to male consumers is okay though, just because a lot of men do it, is not a viable argument in terms of proving that strip clubs are “right” or destined to continue on indefinitely (you’ve already got secular governments in Iceland and Sweden who’ve banned them, and those aren’t religious countries, but rather, countries with a strong feminist presence at the government level, certainly not the case in the US); something can be “normal” in the sense that most people believe in it, without it being ethical or humane as well; the overwhelming majority of people in Nazi Germany believed Jews were a subhuman life form that should be eradicated; that was absolutely normal; in this country, now, the huge majority believe that everybody should follow and worship jesus christ and that those who don’t must burn in hell; that’s as “normal” as the belief that men going to strip clubs is healthy; however, just because most men do it, that doesn’t mean it’s the only worldview, or even a desirable one.

This afternoon, I sat in the park rereading parts of Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity for the first time in a good while; As I did when I first read it, I still felt overwhelmed, and admiring, and grateful, enlivened, sad, angry, understood, and truly recognized, all at the same time. It’s an intense, consciousness-altering thing really, to have another woman—one generations separated from you, one you’ve never even met—explain so perfectly what you yourself have experienced, what I feel as a woman in my body and soul about this particular thing; her words are what I’ve felt particularly when I’ve tried (without much success, probably partly because of my own anger around all this) to explain to a male partner what I want sex to be—and maybe the hugest part of it is, I so, so much want the chance to be understood, seen for who I really am, and it feels like there are so many barriers and roadblock to that between men and women sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find a way.

A lack of confidence about my body doesn’t come anymore from me feeling there’s anything so terribly flawed about me; I’m proud to say that at nearly 33, I’m at a point where I kind of even love my flaws—they’re part of who I am as a human being. No, for me, the self-consciousness—and, if I’m honest, the downright irritable bitterness—about standing naked in front of a male partner doesn’t come so much from worrying that I’m not “beautiful enough” for him—it comes from me having this acute awareness of how he may (or may not be) seeing me.

My breasts aren’t small, and I think I’ve felt self conscious about them for such a long time partly because, frankly, I’m very smart, and an intuitive woman, and any woman who pays half a moment’s attention to the ways of male supremacy that pervade American culture knows that men or most men anyway seem to think they have an absolute right to your chest if you were born a girl. Even if they don’t know you, ogling is considered a male prerogative. And as Brownmiller observes in the passages below, men have literally transformed women’s breasts from simple udders for supplying milk to babies, into these glaring, anxiety-inducing badges of gender; breasts are, in the eyes of most men, symbols of female sexual dirtiness, the “unruly” nature of women’s sexuality, and shame. How could a woman not feel somewhat conflicted about this part of her?

I want to feel proud of my body, particularly during physical intimacy; it’s not even that I don’t want to be looked at, to share joy in my physical self, but that I don’t want to be looked at in that way. I want a man to actually see me, not tits, not hooters, not binoculars, not jugs, not boobs, not taytas…Good grief! The list is nearly endless, but the bottom line is, all the patriarchal jargon for my body and my sexuality is not now and never has been mine. These words for myself (and my body is myself on an important level) were never chosen by myself; And I don’t want them; all they do is make me feel low down, lower than the dirt, and what I want is the chance to soar, to find my own words that give off pride and smack of autonomy, my own sexuality; I want to carve out some sexual dignity for myself, and maybe because I’m a poet, doing it through language lures me much; and if that makes men who’ve learned to like the other kind of words feel guilty and angry, okay, fine—feel guilt, and feel anger. And then, please kindly get your shit together and work on building something better with me.

The following are some of the passages that most inspired me today in S.B.:

 No other part of the human body has such semipublic, intensely private status, and no other part of the body has such vaguely defined custodial rights[.] This is the girl child’s lesson—and through the breast iconography she sees all around her, she comes to understand that breasts belong to everybody, but especially to men. It is they who invent and refine the myths, who discuss breasts publicly, who criticize their failings and extol their wonders, and who claim to have more need and intimate knowledge of them than a woman herself.

 

…slangy familiarities such as boobs, jugs, titties are basically hostile appraisals, despite attempts by some women to incorporate these contemptuous descriptions into their own vocabulary as hip terms of demystified endearment [Yes, this is what those words feel like to me, words of contempt.]

 

Who can blame women for being confused about their breasts? And what good does it do to point to our barebreasted sisters in other culture, for we have seen too many pictures in National Geographic of wizened old females with sagging, shriveled teats or with udderlike breasts that hang forlornly to the waist. No, not sexy. Not pretty and attractive. Entirely too remindful of the she-animal function, of milking the cow until she runs dry. Who wants to dwell on the thought that breasts can look like udders, that breasts are udders, dry, full, swollen, dripping with milk, squeezed, sucked on, raw, tender, in pain—and ultimately used up and withered. No, we’re Marilyn Monroe in the calendar pose. We’re Friday-night entries in a college town wet T-shirt contest. We float down the avenue in a Maidenform bra and the nipples don’t show. [Dang, she’s so fucking dead on.]

 

Not surprisingly, although the erectile tissue is present [Yeah guys, you can and probably do have sensitive nips], masculine sexuality has rarely featured or even admitted its own nipple responsiveness as a source of erogenous pleasure. (When and if it does, will men grow shy about going shirtless?) The little boy who draws two dark, angry circles on the poster of the fully clothed woman has already absorbed society’s lesson: the nipples on his chest are invulnerable and sexless but a girl’s are shameful and dirty. [Women are actively discouraged from enjoying the male body physically, and particularly any parts of it that might be considered emblematic of vulnerability or softness, like nipples or testicles—most straight women I know look at me like I’m nuts if I suggest there’s anything visually appealing there—meanwhile, the female of many, many other species on this planet is partly lured toward her male mate by something bright, colorful, or visually showy and alluring about him. Maybe I should have been born a blue bird (or a dull brown bird, if I were the female;-).]

 

 

After decades of frantic obsession, breasts evidently were such a thoroughly colonized province of masculine sexuality that the sight of a braless woman on the street in the late 1960s could inspire a strong negative reaction. The hoots and catcalls eventually subsided, but the initial emotion was something akin to rage. [The SOLE reason I wear a bra in day to day life is to avoid drawing negative or unwanted comments and attention from men; when I’m in woman only space, I don’t wear one, and the FIRST thing I do when I’m in my home after work is get the binding thing off me. Yes, a bra feels bothersome and restrictive.]    

As I’ve been branching out into learning, looking at, thinking more about the history of pre-Abrahamic  religion, including Goddess worshiping traditions, nature-based rituals and some Wiccan and Pagan stuff, I’ve been reading Starhawk’s classic, “The Spiral Dance” (Starhawk herself was raised Jewish, incidentally–Here I thought I’d drifted far afield from my foray into Judaism of last year, and now I find that, in someways at least, maybe I haven’t;-). I noticed that she recommended Judith Plaskow’s work for a feminist take on Judaism, so I’ve picked up Standing Again at Sinai by Plaskow, again (one advantage to having a small space is all your books are always right at your elbow), & leafing through that a little I’m still impressed with her. Let’s think on this insightful passage here a little bit:

If we are to take seriously, however, the importance of community in human life, we cannot repeat in relation to Judaism the liberal feminist mistake of seeing women as individuals who happen to be discriminated against in the Jewish system. If women fight for equality on liberal terms, then we will gain access to a community that structures its central ideas and institutions around male norms, without changing the character of those ideas or institutions. Women in Judaism–like women in any patriarchal culture–are rendered invisible as a class; we are seen as Other as a class; we are deprived  of agency as a class. Until we understand and change the ways in which Judaism as a system supports the subordination of Jewish women as a subcommunity within the Jewish people, genuine equality of women and men is impossible.

The real challenge of feminism to Judaism emerges, not when women as individual Jews demand equal participation in the male tradition, but when women demand equality as Jewish women, as the class that has up until now been seen as Other. To phrase the feminist challenge to Judaism in an other than liberal way, we might say that the central issue in the feminist redefinition of Israel is the place of difference in community. Judaism can absorb many women rabbis, teachers, and communal leaders; it can ignore or change certain laws and make adjustments around the edges; it can live with the ensuing contradictions and tensions without fundamentally altering its self-understanding. But when women, with our own history and spirituality and attitudes and experiences, demand equality in a community that will allow itself to be changed by our differences, when we ask that our memories become part of Jewish memory and our presence change the present, then we make a demand that is radical and transforming. Then we begin the arduous experiment of trying to create a Jewish community in which difference is neither hierarchalized nor tolerated but truly honored. Then we begin to struggle for the only equality that is genuine.

Substitute society at large for the phrase “Jewish community” in those words, and you’ll have an eloquently articulated vision of full equality for women, as well as a good illustration of some of the key differences between radicalism and liberalism with regards to feminist thought. I might change the phrase “male norms” to “male-supremist norms”  in her first paragraph (the problem is not biological maleness–that is, being born with a Y chromosome and male genitals–in and of itself; the problem is the socially constructed notion that those biologically male traits ought to confer a superior social status on the person born with them; that’s the essence of patriarchy in a nutshell (pun intended;-). I admire Plaskow’s goals though, and what a shame it still feels difficult (for me at least) to find both Jewish community and feminist community in the same spot.

        I’ve always been a slow reader. Lately, I tend to read several books at once, which probably slows my reading speed down further still, or at least it did that initially; nowadays, I’d like to think I’m getting in a better groove of juggling books, but still, My Name Is Asher Lev took me a long time to finish, and I suppose that’s partly because, at the moment, I do find it a little painful to read narratives about young Orthodox and/or formerly Orthodox Jewish men and their experiences in the secular world, particularly those that lead them to conclude secular America is a place of great equality for women. I suppose it’s true to some degree that women have it better outside the streets of Brooklyn’s Chassidic neighborhoods, but I can’t agree with the statements I’ve heard from several such young men, to the effect that, out here, in allegedly-nonreligious America (which is, of course, a false concept in and of itself, given how permeated even the most secular elements of US society are and have been for centuries with Judeo-Christian ideology), women are “emancipated,” everything is equal, as it should be, and totally devoid of misogyny. As a woman, I’ve never felt that to be so, not for a single day of my life. Being a woman in Western secular culture feels pretty damned painful. Women are devalued and subordinated within the world of Jewish Orthodoxy, yes, but I also know that we are devalued in equally painful and crippling—though different—ways outside that world; I and all other women to varying degrees, live with that devaluation daily. In the broader, secular culture in which I was raised, women’s bodies (or what the culture presents as interchangeable female body parts, sexualized segments of anonymous female flesh) are treated not as sacred, not as designed to be known and honored on an individual level, but as fuckable commodity, useful in the sale of things, and particularly useful in making men feel powerful.

          Everything about the performance of femininity involves making oneself seem vulnerable and weak, or at least weaker than men. Sex for women under male supremacy, for example,  means that we are supposed to not only accept, but enjoy being “taken,” done to, and sexually possessed—in a word, fucked (and this idea of the female body and sexual organs as innately passive, a receptacle for men’s sexual action, has many of its roots in Jewish belief). The idea of a woman’s body as sacred, unique—that is, not the female body, but rather, a female body—one specific physical self of one specific living and physical female  person—is almost nowhere to be found in pop-culture. The female body of secular America is not a real person, with a unique mind, heart and intellect, so much as she is an abstraction, a concept useful in marketing things; she is  needed chiefly to help men feel like men, and not, at all cost, anything like a woman—for under patriarchy women are to be weak, at least vaguely humiliated, and sexually vulnerable; particularly, we are there to make men feel good about themselves throughout the entire realm of sexual relationships.

          A week or so ago, I reread  a passage in Chaim Potok’s novel, in which the secular Jewish artist, Jacob Kahn, teaches the supposedly grossly ignorant and culturally misinformed Orthodox Jew, Asher Lev, the all important lesson of how to appreciate “The human body [as] a glory of structure and form.” Of course, for Jacob Kahn, and for heterosexual male artists throughout much of historical time, freedom to portray “the beauty of the human body” has translated into the “right” of heterosexual males to paint in the nude young female flesh—that is, the flesh of women, and generally only those who live up to patriarchal standards of beauty as men define them. Men say what they expect a woman to be if she is to be of value very clearly in the Western male tradition of paints. Only women who are, generally speaking, thin, large breasted, young, passively portrayed (most often the female nude has been painted by men in a supine position—she is laid out, spread invitingly on her side or her back, almost like a meal to be consumed, horizontal, or twisted and contorted, even turned upside down from time to time, legs up in the air in high heels–though this is more common in the world of fashion magazines and pornography–but she is almost never in an upright position). Such a standing position would suggest strength or action or powerfulness, traits only men are allowed to exhibit. And, most importantly, the female nude is interchangeable. What I mean by this last point is well illustrated I think by the following passage in which Kahn’s character explains to Asher:

          I have asked the girl to pose for you today,” he said. I looked at him. “She is an excellent model and you will draw her in the nude.” I felt myself begin to sweat heavily and did not know what to say. “I want you to see the contours and rhythms with your own eyes. It is not enough to copy Titian and Ingres and Renoir.” I did not say anything. I was trembling inside. I felt a choking heaviness in my throat and chest. “Asher Lev, listen to me.” He was talking gently but with tense insistence. “The human body is a glory of structure and form. When an artist draws or paints or sculpts it, he is a battle ground between intelligence and emotion, between his rational side and his sensual side…[.] I looked over at the girl…she looked to be in her early twenties, had short raven hair and dark eyes…she wore a brightly colored summer dress and regarded me curiously…[.] “Asher Lev, the Rebbe told me never to permit you to draw this way. I have chosen to disregard the Rebbe. The nude is a form of art I want you to master….He spoke briefly to the girl….she was very beautiful. I did not even know her name. I saw the flowing curve of her breasts. I saw the line of shoulder and hip and thigh and leg…[.] I drew her that way and then drew her again in two more poses before…lunch. I ate the sandwich my aunt had packed for me. Jacob Kahn [Male artists with grey hair and a white mustache in his 60s] and the girl went out for lunch…[.] I went home in a daze….I saw the girl. I saw her body…I drew her with my eyes, letting my eyes move slowly across her.

          Several aspects of this passage felt excruciating to me, both as a female reader and artist. Asher seems all the more intoxicated with seeing a woman naked when he doesn’t “even know here name.” And why is it that this old man with white hair—a wrinkled, practically ancient male—chooses for Asher a young woman in her twenties as the ideal “human body” through which he is to learn about beauty? The message is one that women cannot fail to learn from birth—we must strive to live up to the ideal of physical beauty that men have defined for us, all the while knowing that, even if we are able to meet this expectation at certain points in our lives, those moments will never be permanent. We will all, eventually, have days when our skin breaks out, when our bodies aren’t perfect, and we will all get old. Always a knowledge lurks in the background, gnawing at our brains in a way that ensures a thoughtful woman lives in perpetual fear, a kind of vague but no less menacing terror that there will always be somebody younger and potentially more attractive to replace her. If she has money, and low self-esteem (as almost all women in this culture do at some point–the low-self-esteem part, not the money), she may throw herself into cosmetic surgery, Botox, expensive chemical peels, and a myriad of other cosmetic procedures that hold out the promise of helping her look young, helping her to keep men’s approval and love (and what human being doesn’t ultimately need love?) One day, she knows that she will grow older, becoming, at least by the standards of pop-culture, unwanted, unable to embody aesthetic beauty ever again, and she is told that at this point, to the majority of men, she will become at best invisible, at worst, repulsive.

           Once at UGA where I started off college as an Art major with a focus in drawing and painting, I took a drawing course taught by a female artist named Susan Hauptman, who worked in chalk pastels (the image beginning this blog is an example of one of her self-portraits); I remember her bringing in slides of a male painter whose technique she admired, but who, as she pointed out to us in his self portraits with women lovers, consistently painted himself clothed and standing next to younger and younger naked women. As he aged, his lovers never did; rather, they were simply replaced by newer women. Instead of remaining with the same partner he simply moved on periodically to a younger version. A few weeks ago, I heard an older woman on NPR make a statement that felt amazingly powerful to me, to the effect that wrinkles and gray hair on women are “badges of wisdom that free you from having to please others, especially men.” As a younger woman, I envied her self-confidence. Wrinkled skin and gray hair are not acceptable marks of distinction for women as they are on a male face, at least not according to patriarchal standards of beauty. A woman is forced to confront the realization that, in the eyes of many men if not the majority, she is constantly decreasing in value and in beauty; she is also fully replaceable. Interestingly, this may have something to do with the Christian church’s historical hatred of the figure of the crone–that is, the pre-Judeo-Christian woman healer, community leader, and priestess, who, among older, Goddess worshipping cultures, was considered powerful, wise, and of increasing rather than decreasing importance.   

         Later in the novel, Asher discusses Neoplasticism, Abstract Cubism and other 20th century art movements with some of Jacob’s (male) artists friends; at no point is a woman painter mentioned. Asher relates how, “Once the introductions and curious glances were over, they did not seem to care about my skullcap and earlocks. They only seemed to care about my painting.” This right to be judged by one’s merit, one’s soul and one’s artistic vision, one’s heart and one’s work—one’s intrinsic self—is a luxury only men know in secular culture (yes, still). Few men allow themselves to be fully aware of what a privilege this entitlement to be judged chiefly by who one is inside really is. In Potock’s novel, as in the world, women are not permitted to display physical strangeness and/or “ugliness” and still be considered remarkable (Asher is pudgy, red-haired, non-Arian looking, and, by secular standards, probably pretty damned ugly, certainly strangely dressed). But none of that matters, because men are artists, viewers, observers, active principles whose vision of the world continues to define it; women are made into passive objects of what beauty is as defined by the men.

           Ironically, this ideological valuing of men’s interpretation of reality over women’s is heavily present in the Jewish tradition itself. Men’s brains were said by the rabbis to be more suited to serious study, more given to thoughtfulness than women’s. That sentiment is echoed by the constant and pervasive message made clear to women from birth in secular culture (though I have tried and found it very difficult to make the pain of this message real to men, despite the fact that it would help me immensely to feel they could somehow be made to at least understand what it does to a person’s mental vision of herself, and how inescapable it is) of both secular and pop-culture that women’s chief function is to be objects of physical beauty and desire for men—that we should want to be “pretty,” that caring more about beauty than study and thinking is part of our very “nature;” That women are only beautiful when we are young, and that the body of an older, mature woman is something hideous, something to be ashamed of, never to be treated as beautiful and worthy of being made the subject of great art, is, I would argue, an ideology at least partly rooted in the Talmud.

          Jacob Kahn holds up to Asher Lev the work of male artists like Renoir and Ingres, Hopper and Picasso; he speaks to Asher as though men’s way of seeing the world represents an objective standard, the only aesthetic; when Asher defends to his father his choice to paint nudes, the term “nude” still only means young, naked women who practice femininity and can live up to patriarchal standards of beauty; the only weak explanation Asher can give for his choice is that it is part of an artistic tradition he must honor; But, motivated by religious reasons or not, his father is right when he says that sometime Asher may hurt people if he does not think in moral terms as well as aesthetic ones. This is true, despite the fact that both father and son think in male terms and not of women’s diminished humanity. Unfortunately, male artists have a long history of fetishizing youth in women, treating our body’s as suitable for attention only until we begin to show signs of aging. Given that men in general are also discouraged from showing emotion or feelings, apart from anger, men and male artists also seem deeply fearful about connecting sexual intimacy with love or caring for another, or with being fully known by her. Abandoning a woman when she begins to show the human signs of growing older means avoiding the terror of knowing and being known. One can begin again with someone new, less experienced, more naïve, easier to look at, and easier to hide from. Thus, Jacob’s model for “good art” and artistic “mastery” involves treating “the girl” not as a distinct and unique person whose inner being cannot be separated from her body, but merely as, “breasts…legs…flesh.” All of these can be easily replaced with the body of any other traditionally attractive young woman. She is not beautiful because she is herself, but because she represents acceptable looking “woman parts,” is but one representative of an interchangeable group known anonymously as “woman”—or in this case, the infantilizing “girl.”

          If a woman feels degraded by being reduced to her physical self (which, unlike her intellect, interests, goals and achievements, is mostly beyond her control), she is discouraged from saying anything about that pain; such a statement might hurt men’s feelings, cause them to feel guilty, or require that they rethink their way of relating to women in general; and men must never be challenged or put upon like that. Men’s feelings, unlike women’s, matter in a world where women are expected to spend our lives soothing, nurturing, and giving to men, never causing them the slightest bit of inner turmoil.

          I do not think most men realize how fully and carefully secular women are taught to be extremely careful and gentle with the male ego, to please men, at all costs, to the point where it’s an almost unconscious obsession for most women. I have dated men who have expressed frustration with me that I have a hard time feeling comfortable undressing in front of them, and my fear, of course, comes from being afraid that my physical body will “displease” them, given that it isn’t perfect. I remember one experience in particular, when, during sexual intimacy with a man, I finally worked up the courage to pull down my underwear in front of him, (a huge step for me, given my self-consciousness); I did so, with my back turned, so that only my ass was visible to him; when I did this, he suddenly seemed embarrassed for me; he had pressured me a little to let him see me, but at that minute, he muttered softly that I looked so exposed; that was the part of his response that I liked; it seemed like he was almost at war with himself—the part that had been told he had every right, as a red-blooded American man, to ogle me, a naked woman, battling with the part that felt concern for my feelings as a person; he seemed to feel suddenly guilty over potentially having made me feel uncomfortable; And I felt, in those seconds, his shock at how beautiful my body was, simply because it was mine, and his fear that he had hurt me made me feel less vulnerable. But, like a “real man,” he quickly recovered his composure and blurted out, “that’s a nice ass,” at which point I felt degraded, though I didn’t dare tell him that for fear he would leave me (and he eventually did); This is the sort of language men are taught to use towards women, the way they’re encouraged to look at and speak about us; for me, it felt as though there wasn’t anything about me or even about my specific body that he was praising; instead, I had been quickly reduced to “a nice ass,” and thereby, any power I might have had in the situation was undercut, so that he could feel in control again. His words reminded me of the ways men are taught to be with women—to help themselves feel stronger and less vulnerable during sex; He was proclaiming to me, in effect, that there were many, many “nice asses” out there in the world, and that mine was just one of them, nothing special, and, should he ever get tired of it or of me, he could easily leave me for whatever reason. He was the man in that moment, and I was less than nobody, both I and my “nice ass” having been defined as completely replaceable.

          Something similar seems to happen in Potok’s novel. Readers are not told the young woman’s name—her story does not matter, either for the purposes of the novel or an overwhelmingly male tradition of art; only the men, male artists who paint her, Asher and Jacob, deserve full humanity, the freedom of being known. The woman who models for them, despite being in her twenties, is consistently referred to as “the girl,” a pejorative term, belittling in that it implies a lack of intellectual maturity. The argument is of course made that this is simply the way men talk, and a feminist reader ought not to be so sensitive. Yet, the demeaning feeling of being called “girl” throughout ones life might be better understood by imagining an alternate novel, in which, say, a woman painter, choosing to portray a twenty year old Orthodox Jewish male in the nude, consistently referred to her model as “the boy,” or “the Jew,” or more clearly still “the Jew boy.”

           Men also demonstrate a sense of ease and entitlement about appropriating derogatory terms used in abusive or belittling context against women, as is demonstrated by Jacob’s instruction to Asher that he must never “become a whore” by compromising his artistic vision in accordance with the feelings of others. A whore, according to Jacob, is someone with no integrity or principle, one who enjoys being used, an empty void of fakeness and artifice with zero self-respect, a woman, one who fucks for money. The ways in which this expression dehumanizes women are clear, and no less present in a conversation  between two men using the term metaphorically than they would be between two gentiles in which one accused another of “trying to Jew him down.” The origin of both expressions comes from the systematic oppression of a less powerful group—be it women or Jews—by those with power.

            Later in the novel, Asher attempts to paint his mother’s pain and explains that he would be “a whore” if he did not follow his artistic vision, even if it hurts her. He laments that his mother is torn between him and his father, and though his love for her is touching, he demonstrates a total lack of concern for her plight as a woman that amounts to tacit misogyny. Asher is sad that The Master of the Universe pits good sons and good fathers against each other in ways that often leave mothers trapped painfully in the middle; he does not seem aware, however, that his mother has learned to put the lives of the men dearest to her above her own, that she lives her life, not according to desires for herself, but for the men she loves. Asher does not label himself as potentially being a “kike,” but a whore, because anti-Semitism has been questioned by men with power in ways that misogyny has yet to be; even as he identifies with his mother’s plight, the woman-hating spirit of the expression is lost on him. Women are expected to overlook these forms of dehumanization, the life long insult of being turned into somebody’s “girl” no matter how wise one becomes, because aging means shame for a woman, or the symbol of weakness, of “whoring” an insult so deeply tied to sexism and women’s pain. Having been instructed that aging is a failure on our parts, women may feel relieved whenever a man does this—assures us we can still at least partially live up to the label “girl;” this means we may have a few more years left of being considered desirable and able to be loved.

            Jacob Kahn chose not to provide Asher with an older female model—or a male model for that matter—not because of an objective standard of aesthetic beauty, but because of a male supremacist one. Women are expected to feel elated over having our bodies viewed, sexualized, made anonymous and interchangeable for men of all creeds and ages for the same reason. The term “great art” however is actually highly subjective; what Jacob Kahn teaches Asher is, in reality, his own definition of a successful artwork—one which a female viewer might not find satisfying or transcendent at all. The version of “beauty” put forward involves a young man learning to separate looking at a woman’s body from knowing her as a person with human dignity, a friend, lover, equal. This of course would involve Asher or any man allowing himself to be known on a deep level by her as well; I think many men are terrified of this kind of exposure before women, with the risks of rejection, dependence, and abandonment it entails. Historically women have been expected to play along with the view that who we are can be separated out from our bodies and from sex with us. Yet, the treatment of male and female nudes by women is beginning to challenge this. Susan Hauptman finds beauty in “the human form” via self portraits of herself in her sixties, a specific, knowable adult woman; gay male artists like Joe Brainard and Frank O’Hara have provided beauty in the treatment of male nudes as well, though there is still a dearth of art dealing with the male nude by women.

           If Hassidism instilled in Asher Lev the idea that the human body is sacred, and that it should not be viewed, painted, or photographed in a dehumanizing way, I personally am unable to pretend that the secular view of an objectified female body is superior, or more representative of women’s liberation for that matter. Part of the privilege men in the secular world hold involves looking hard at women, without empathy, feeling entitled to inflict the discomfort it can cause somebody to be scrutinized on the basis of appearance, using pornography without guilt or remorse, and having sex with as many women as they choose without fear of stigma or pregnancy. The patriarchal status quo manifests itself in different ways within and outside the Hassidic community. Interestingly though, as a writer, even when I have written in specific and loving ways about individual men’s nudity, those men have sometimes told me they felt embarrassed and exposed by my art. Yet women are expected to enthusiastically embrace the role of looked-upon-fuck-object with no need for sexual privacy, and to put huge amounts of time and energy into trying to be beautiful. If a human being is not beautiful, and she is female, after all, she essentially worthless under patriarchy. I, like Asher, have always loved drawing, and been fairly good at it, and part of me could certainly enjoying depicting men exposed in paintings, displaying their naked bodies at some gallery or other, as just so much pathetic, sexualized male flesh. Yet women are forbidden from viewing men in this way, assuming we would even want to (I suspect my own desire to create art like that from time to time stems from feeling so much anger at what men do to women). The idea that beauty might have something to do with the person or soul inside a body is a challenge to a patriarchal status quo, and, though ideas about the sacredness of the body are frequently written off by secular men as religious foolishness, as a woman artist, I really do wonder what men would feel like if they were held to such harsh standards of artistic beauty?

 

I am part of a coallition of feminist activists organizing to raise awareness about male violence against women and women’s economic poverty. And, when I say “part of” I mean I mostly just sit in the same room with some of the most brilliant women on the planet, in stunned awe at their amazingness, and try every now and then to contribute a miniscule something useful to the discussion.  At any rate, one woman collected some stats on rape and male perpetrated sexual assault on women, and these feel so harrowing, and important to me, I want to share. Some of the ones that hit me hardest: “A survey of high school students found that one in five had experienced forced sex (rape). Half of these girls told no one about the incident, ” “In a study done in the 1980’s, 30% of rape survivors contemplate suicide after the rape,” and “82% of rape survivors in this study said being sexually assaulted permanently changed them.” Also interesting to me how often other white people ask me, “Is it safe living in Harlem?” with no awareness of the stat below that mentions how %60 percent of all men who rape are white.

SEXUAL ASSAULT STATISTICS


Perpetrators of Sexual Assault  

  • 99% of people who rape are men, 60% are Caucasian. (4)
  • Between 62% (2) and 84% (1) of survivors knew their attacker.
  • 8% of men admit committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. Of these men who committed rape, 84% said that what they did was definitely not rape. (1)
  • More than one in five men report “becoming so sexually aroused that they could not stop themselves from having sex, even though the woman did not consent.” (5)
  • 35% of men report at least some degree of likelihood of raping if they could be assured they wouldn’t be caught or punished. (6)
  • Sexual assault offenders were substantially more likely than any other category of violent criminal to report experiencing physical or sexual abuse as children. (4)
  • In one study, 98% of men who raped boys reported that they were heterosexual. (7)

Victims of Sexual Assault – Survivors

  • False reports of rape are rare, according to the FBI, occurring only 8% of the time. (8)
  • A survey of high school students found that one in five had experienced forced sex (rape). Half of these girls told no one about the incident. (3)

Circumstances of Rape

 

  • Approximately 40% of sexual assaults take place in the survivor’s home. About 20% occur in the home of a friend, neighbor, or relative. 10% occur outside, away from home. About 8% take place in parking garages. (4)
  • More than half of all rape and sexual assault incidents occurred within one mile of the survivor’s home or in her home. (4)

Trauma; Psychological and Physical Health Effects of Sexual Assault (on Victims/Survivors)

  • In a study done in the 1980’s, 30% of rape survivors contemplate suicide after the rape. (1)
  • 82% of rape survivors in this study said being sexually assaulted permanently changed them. (1)
  • The adult pregnancy rate associated with rape is estimated to be 4.7%. (9)

Reporting and (Legal) Consequences of Rape for Perpetrators

  • In a study done in the 1980’s, 5% of rape survivors reported the crime to the police. 95% did not report the rape to the police. (1)
  • 42% of rape survivors in this study said they told no one about the rape. (1)
  • Throughout the last 10 years, the National Crime Victimization Survey has reported that approximately 30% of rape survivors report the incident to the police. (2)
  • Of those rapes reported to the police (which is 1/3 or less to begin with), only 16% result in prison sentences. Therefore, approximately 5% of the time, a man who rapes ends up in prison, 95% of the time he does not. (2)

Sources:
1.     Warsaw, R. I Never Called it Rape. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
2.    Rennison, C. M. “National Crime Victimization Survey, Criminal Victimization 2001: Changes from 2000-2001 with Trends 1993-2001,” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 187007, 2002.
3.    Davis, T. C, G. Q. Peck, and J. M. Storment. “Acquantaince Rape and the High School Student.” Journal of Adolescent Health 14 (1993): 220-24.
4.    Greenfeld, L. A. Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault, Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997.
5.    Peterson, S. A., and B. Franzese. “Correlates of College Men’s Sexual Abuse of Women.” Journal of College Student Personnel 28 (1987): 223-28.
6.    Malamuth, N. M. “Rape Proclivity Among Males.” Journal of Social Issues 37 (1981): 138-57.
7. “Sexual Abuse of Boys,” Journal of the American Medical Association, December 2, 1998.
8. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, 1995.
9. Homes, M. M., H. S. Resnick, D. G. Kilpartrick, and C. L. Best. “Rape-related Pregnancy: Estimates and Descriptive Chracteristics From a National Sample of Women.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 175 (1996): 320-24.

INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE STATISTICS

_____________________________________________________________________

Domestic violence (DV) does not discriminate and it impacts women irrespective of social, economic, religious or cultural group (WHO, 2002). In the United States, nearly 1.5 million women are assaulted by an intimate partner every year (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Furthermore, most incidents of DV will never be reported (AARDVARC, 2009). This amounts to between 25% and 33% of women facing DV in their lifetime. While women are not the only victims of DV, they make up 85-90% of DV victims.  A disproportionate amount of DV victims are young women between the ages of 18-25.
In 2008, New York City’s Domestic Violence Hotline advocates answered 134, 903 calls, averaging 307 calls per day (NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, 2009). Domestic violence is increasingly seen as an important public health problem due to the harmful physical and psychological effects of DV on women (WHO; National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2003). Abused women do not only suffer from acute injuries, but also experience higher risk of serious health consequences such as chronic pain, abdominal complaints, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, miscarriages and premature labor (Pichta, 2004; AARVARC, 2009).

References:
World Health Organization. (2002). Constitution of the World Health Organization. Geneva: World Health Organization.
Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence: Findings from the national violence against women survey. Washington, DC: Center for disease control and prevention.

New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. (2009). Key New York City initiatives. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved September 26, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nyc.gov/html/ocdv/downloads/pdf/July-09-initiative.pdf

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2003). Costs of intimate partner violence against women in the United States. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 1, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/IPV_cost.html

AARDVARC. (2009). AARDVARC: An abuse, rape and domestic violence aid and resource collection. Retrieved November 5, 2009, from the World Wide Web: http://www.aardvarc.org/

 
        I’m a little stunned that I was impressed by this article; my dealings with Shulem Deen in the past on feminism have been a real mixed and sometimes upsetting bag, but there’s not much here that I could take issue with, and it’s well written. I identified a lot, albeit for perhaps different reasons, with this statement in particular:
 
Still and all, the mercurial indignation of liberal-minded New Yorkers is something I take great pleasure in rolling my eyes at, and this particular incident sends my eyes rolling at top speed.
 
       Lately, it feels as though I’ve been having this experience ENDLESSLY when it comes to Leftist nyc media exploding with allegedly sincere outrage over how women are treated among Brooklyn Hasidim. Meanwhile, the same men who decry Hasidic women’s having to move to the back of the bus as intolerable misogyny, will stroll by a sexist subway ad unphased, and defend to the death their “right” to access deeply degrading imagery of women in pornography as “free speech” (um, when did “speech” become an act of abuse perpetrated on somebody else’s body boys?); It seems that in the case of the woman with her face covered in jizz  Mr. New York Liberal just jacked it to, her “choice” and “agency” somehow count, in a way many Hasidic women’s adamant decision to get out of their men’s way, follow tzniut, etc., apparently do not.
 
       What’s the difference? In my view, it’s a simple one really. Liberal secular men aren’t personally benefiting or taking pleasure from the subordination of chassidic women. I think Leftist men often like to make a big stink about “those men over there”–ie, muslim men, chassidishe men, or whatever comparatively smaller, outsider group they find it convenient to shift the focus to, rather than looking at the gross misogyny in the broader secular culture that is their own back yard. Many liberal men who’ll wax poetic about the woman-hating aspects of other patriarchal cultures, will clamp down in silence if you attempt to engage them on how they benefit from sexism and male privilege in their own lives. I felt thoroughly pissed off when I read an article over the summer in the brooklyn paper, about how awful it was that chassidishe women couldn’t wear tank tops in the heat, because of the horribly barbaric, ultra orthodox Jewish male: http://brooklynpaper.com/stories/34/23/wb_modestypolice_2011_6_10_bk.html . Meanwhile, under a picture of a young, thin, 20 something white woman in full make up, with (of course) perky tits and her rear-end poked out in the clichéd fashion magazine position understood to indicate a “liberated female sexuality,” wink, wink, you had the oh so astute observation, “Some women like wearing tank tops”–Wow. REALLY?! How profound! Am I supposed to swoon at the compassionate concern for women in that wonderous little gem of a “pro-feminist” statement?
 
          Many men on the Left seem to define defending their own right to access whatever pair of hooters they’ve deemed desirable as doing their part to fight sexism–and THAT sends MY eyes rolling at top speed. The sad truth is, women–Hasidic and non-chassidic alike–are indoctrinated with an ideology of our inherent inferiority; we’re taught to think of ourselves as worthless without a man’s love, to accept that we need to be beautiful, that our whole lives should be spent seeking male approval, putting men first, being subservient, aiming to please, to the point where these self-hating definitions of being female come to feel like an inborn part of our psyches; it seems “natural,” we’ve been doing it so long, much like every other woman we know; we forget the self-abnegating beliefs were ever learned and refuse to acknowledge that we could try to resist them now. And yes,  how that gender socialization plays out varies a bit from culture to culture, but in many ways, I’d argue, it doesn’t vary much; if you teach a person self-hating ideas about being a woman from day one, you can’t expect her to all of a sudden jump up and fight for her right to sit at the front of the bus (and this, I’d actually argue, might be why modern orthodox women have more of a problem with a smaller mechitza at their shuls–they generally have had more exposure to the ideas of women’s rights and the women’s movement in the secular culture, than the average Hasidic woman). This has always seemed like a glaring flaw to me with Liberalism–it behaves as though we live in an idealized world, where everybody already has equality, and everybody starts out with the same freedoms to make any choice she likes. Sorry fellas, but sweet as that fairytail sounds, it’s total bullshit, and more than that, it’s a distortion of social reality that serves the interest of the powerful. And that’s my feminist rant for the nacht.

www.brooklynpaper.com

A Hasidic group has papered South Williamsburg with fliers demanding modesty in dress. What’s next? Burkas?
about an hour ago ·LikeUnlike ·