Are feminists closet Catholics?

The US anti-porn campaigner Gail Dines has been popping up all over the place, expounding her views authentic feminine sexuality. Porn is bad, she opines because:

“The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects. This has a terrible effect on girls’ sexual identity because it robs them of their own sexual desire.”

I confess to having some sympathy. From a Catholic perspective, the first part of that statement is entirely correct. One of the problems with porn, is, as the Blessed John Paul 2 observed, is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little, pornography is by its very nature reductive.

What fascinates me is how certain feminists are becoming the new arbiters of sex and sexuality, the very same women who eschew Catholic sexual teaching as the product of an oppressive patriarchy are inadvertently embracing and proclaiming an identical doctrine, without  so much of a hint of self-awareness or irony.  Let’s compare Dines’ statement on female sexual identity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out. CC 2333

Both are certainly agreed on the subject of individual sexual identity, although gender theorists may well have something to say on the subject of complementarity, but there can be no doubt that both are arguing that men and women have diverse sexual identities.

Speaking in an interview last year, Joan Bakewell, the veteran broadcaster and former feminist icon conceded that the much maligned Mary Whitehouse was right to fear the sexual liberation of the ’60s would damage society.

“The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked”

A view of sex that is not confined to liberals or advocates of free love. Consider the catechism once again:

 “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. “

It seems that both feminists and the Catholic Church are in agreement in terms of separate male/female sexual identities and the inherent beauty of sex. In fact both Catholicism and feminism seem to want to hearken back to prelapsarian innocence, of Adam and Eve, cavorting freely in Eden, happily engaging in sexual intercourse as a sign of mutual love and affection, unbound by the chains of lust, oppression or exploitation. It’s not an image borne out of the free love movement of the sixties, indeed Milton pictures Adam and Eve enjoying conjugal bliss in their bower prior to the fall and the language that he uses to physically describe Eve is ripe with eroticism reminiscent of the Bible’s most sensual and sexy books, Song of Songs.

No doubt feminists will baulk at being identified with a religion which they perceive as being the product of patriarchy, but one has to admit that the parallels are compelling. Feminists display the qualities of prudery associated with Mary Whitehouse, as recently observed by Brendan O’Neill and therein lies the root of the irony and proof of women’s continued sexual oppression. Women feel uncomfortable with the marketisation of sexuality, which has been commodified, turned into a selling point and used as a yardstick against which women feel they must measure themselves. Any women who experiences discomfort or worse still expresses this, is according to O’Neill, an outdated conservative relic and something of a spoilsport. A particularly sexist advert in which women were objectified was aimed at a teenage market, which is why women are having a sense of humour lapse, no matter that women might be concerned about the effect of such advertisements on the developing psyche of the impressionable teenage boy who is immersed in a sexually saturated culture and who potentially has access to a volume and nature of pornography beyond the wildest dreams of the preceding generations. The usual Mos Eisley crew of Daily Telegraph commentators, point out in their usually charming fashion, that women are only complaining because they are ugly old harridans who can’t measure up and who are all probably rather useless in bed.

Women’s sexual liberation has paradoxically given birth to their sexual repression, couched in the language of sexual freedoms. Joan Bakewell noted that

“The Pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely.”

“Then everything came to be about money – so now sex is about money, too. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff on newsagents’ shelves?

What the pill did, was to strip the act of sex of its procreational qualities and create the illusion of consequence free sex. When procreation is removed from sex, it becomes nothing more than a leisure activity and thus ripe for commercialisation and exploitation. Marriages were no longer necessary or required, if it could be guaranteed that no children would result from sex. Everyone could have sex with whom they wanted when they wanted. As a result of this freeing up of sexual behaviour and attitudes sex then came to the forefront. It was a fun pastime that you could indulge in with everyone at will, no longer restricted to marriage and a natural topic for general discourse and commercialisation. With marriage now off the menu, women are the ones who bear the brunt of any unintended consequences of sexual encounters. It is women who have to cope with the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy and women who are forced to override their natural fertility.
The sex industry is now huge business, the adult entertainment industry is worth billions of dollars a year, but are we really any happier or more fulfilled as a result, or are we all suffering from anxiety, body image and performance issues, men and women alike, as a result? The rise of metrosexualism demonstrates that body image and performance anxieties are not limited to women. Furthermore without going into explicit detail, not all pornography caters to a straightforward hetrosexual or vanilla market, therefore the narrative that pornography mainly humiliates and degrades women is too reductive, although I would contend that pornography humiliates and degrades all who are involved in it, be it as participant or voyeur.
I suspect it’s too late to turn the clock back nor do I advocate any sort of ban, given my innate liberal leanings – a ban on pornography skirts dangerously close to totalitarianism as well as being largely unenforceable. Like alcohol, tobacco, trans-fats and gambling, I suspect that its effect differs from person to person. Whilst I would be the last person to advocate pornography, having witnessed the pernicious effects of a fledgling pornography addiction in a previous relationship as well as believing pornography to be enormously spiritually as well as physically and psychologically damaging, it is not the role of the state to act as a custodian of personal morality and health. All anti-porn campaigners can do is commission and widely publicise/disseminate any scientific data and research as and when it becomes available. All the state should do is put effective controls on what may be accessed by children in public places. As I’ve said before, if parents are so concerned about their children becoming overly sexualised, then there is a simple solution, namely keeping tight controls over what comes into the family home and access to the computer.
Consenting adults should be able to make their own informed decisions and not be dictated to by either feminists or Catholics but the similarity between the two is more than a little striking. Catholics are often accused of seeking to impose their own version of morality upon others simply by speaking out about damaging sexual behaviours, yet unlike feminists we do not seek to impose legislation to regulate the sexual behaviour of others but advise of the moral dangers, for which we are deemed intolerant and as many commentators here have noted – warped.
Feminists have a much more overt agenda of wishing to regulate others’ sexual behaviour, by force if necessary, wishing to ban strip clubs and limit pornography, and yet at the same time, wish to revile Catholics for what they perceive to be regressive attitudes. It’s all rather strange considering we outwardly would seem to have much in common.

18 thoughts on “Are feminists closet Catholics?

  1. “It seems that both feminists and the Catholic Church are in agreement in terms of separate male/female sexual identities”

    That males have one sexual identity and women another completely different one? Not so certain there’s a feminist consensus on that one. (Or on what should be banned for that matter). Or am I misunderstanding what you are saying?

    1. Dines seems to be arguing that pornography is harmful in an unique way to women, which pre-supposes a separate sexual identity.

      She is also behind a campaign to ban porn and have zero strip clubs in local areas.

      1. No, it doesn’t presume anything of the sort. Pornography could objectify women, reduce them to their looks or sexual prowess, commodify them, encourage the ignoring of their desires and needs, dis individuate them much more than it does men. None of those harms is predicated on all women sharing a set sexual identity by virtue of being female. In fact, assuming that is not the case makes the disindividuation of women a worse thing (if all women are passive, it’s not so harmful portraying them as passive, is it?)

        Re Dines’ campaigns, if feminism is predicated on the idea that women are individuals, as a feminist the fact one women is campaigning is no guarantee all women are.

      2. I understand what you are saying, but equally Dines then disindividuates women by stating that pornography harms female sexual identity.

        Why would pornography harm specifically women in a unique way as is suggested? Surely that assumes that women have some trait in common which leads to their exploitation or hampers the budding of their innate “natural” sexuality?

      3. Oh, and as a sidebar, I think traditionally Catholicism has been more feminist in the “woman as an individual” sense than some other Christian churches. Women could seek God in a diversity of roles (albeit a restricted diversity, and most requiring a vow of chastity and/or wealth). This is better than a view that only one role, wife and mother, is suitable or fulfilling for a woman.

  2. I think it’s a case of after a period of ‘anything goes’, society swings back to a more ‘conservative climate’, it happened in the 1700s and in Victorian times, and we see it now again: the pendulum is starting to swing back.

  3. There are a lot of feminists who would actively oppose a ban on pornography and there are some feminists who are pro-porn (or at least pro-certain-kinds-of-porn.) They generally refer to themselves as sex-positive (and call their opponents, within and outside feminism, sex-negative, though I’ve never come accross anyone who self-labels as sex-negative.)

  4. “I understand what you are saying, but equally Dines then disindividuates women by stating that pornography harms female sexual identity.”
    Not if porn outlines a single particular way of having sex which all women are then expected to conform to. Reading her most recent blog,
    she says that many porn-watching men “wanted to play out porn sex” on women’s bodies and “a lot of the women, they don’t want to do it, but they don’t have the vocabulary to express why they don’t want to do it because everywhere they go in this society they’re told, “If you don’t do it, you’re a prude.” Sexual identity is harmed because women are pushed towards one type of sex, and a particular type of sex in which they are an object. Note too that she does not exclude the possibility that some women may want to do this.

    “Why would pornography harm specifically women in a unique way as is suggested?”

    Because, per the same blog, women are the ones performing sex acts that causes prolapsed anuses, infections and damage so severe that most can only work for three months.
    Because women are the ones pressured into sex acts they don’t want (though the culture obviously plays a part in that too)
    Because women are the ones portrayed as objects rather than agents.
    Neither of those concerns requires a single “sexual nature” to be ascribed to women.

  5. Fascinating post Caroline.

    I would say some feminists are catholic, and other religions. Feminism, despite appearances to the contrary is not *actually* a mono-theist religion. I do sometimes think though that feminists confuse ‘patriarchy’ with ‘god’.

    I think you are right that in practice feminists emphasise the difference between men and women’s gender and sexual identities. But in theory they are supposed to be open to gender fluidity, social constructed identities and diverse sexualities. You have pointed out they don’t always practise what they preach. Another thing they have in common with many catholics…

    1. Whatever about passive, men are just as stereotyped as women in (straight) porn. (And that is just as problematic for them as for women – I imagine a straight couple having porn sex and neither really wanting to).

  6. Most second wave (ie 1960s) feminism did have a substantive idea of what human flourishing involved. It also had a sense of the difference between the sexes. Even if many of the details of that analysis were barking mad, those themes had common ground with Catholicism. Third wave feminism (ie now) seems to be entirely about freedom to make yourself up as you go along. I think that probably just makes them ‘useful idiots’ for the inhumane manipulations of secular power, but, in any case, it distances feminism further from Catholicism.

  7. Hi Lazarus – good points. But I think the kind of rhetoric as identified by Caroline, of Gail Dines and other feminists is *very* reminiscent of 1960s/1970s feminism. It is a return to the old-school ‘religious’ fervour of women’s special (victim) status and men’s demonised (predator) status.

  8. @QRG Yes, fair enough! The temporal labels of second/third wave disguise the fact that second wave feminism still exists as a strand within present day feminism, and that, despite some of the positive points I identified, there’s a lot of other stuff that no Catholic could accept (eg demonization of men).

  9. Thanks for this. First, I think we have to be careful not to climb aboard well worn social discourses and presume feminism necessarily means ‘liberalism’ ‘misandry’ or an inversion of social roles. Feminism is a very broad church indeed – and has (in a spooky parallel) undergone various schisms, reformations and counter reformations over the past century or so. And yes, I think certain feminist creeds have, like other liberal or libertarian strands of thought, begun to see the sexual revolution of the 1960s as both a blessing and a curse. This re-evaluation of social mores can perhaps be best summed up by Austin Powers – when he and Dr Evil have their verbal showdown at the end of the first Powers film, Dr Evil notes that in the late 1990s the values the 1960s Powers stood for are seen as ‘evil’; Powers answers this by saying that ‘we’ now have the best of both worlds: freedom and responsibility!

    Yet, the sexual oppression of women continues. Though sometimes a good deal more subtly than just overt porn. I don’t know if you heard ‘Front Row’ the other night on Radio 4, when Ricky Gervais was interviewed about his new sit com ‘Life’s Too Short’ staring Warwick Davis? I wasn’t always swayed by Gervais’ defence of the show. However pondering the program afterwards (I was listening to it in the bath) I was struck about how much fuss Mark Lawson (interviewing) made about the possible oppression of disabled people for the sake of comedy. What I found odd about Lawson’s opprobrium is that, outside of feminist and disability thinking, no one thinks it odd that we in our modern day society we still equate evil with a lack of physical beauty. I don’t watch the program, but I have caught several trailers for the BBC ‘Merlin’ program and noted that evil characters, particularly evil women are shown as being horrendously ugly – whereas the virtuous characters, are in the main (particularly the women) beautiful. I offer this as an example of how our sexual and gender ‘expectations’ haven’t really moved on. There is something entrenched in our culture that equates beauty with virtue and success (cf. The Telegraph comment!).

    It is curious how technology often has a sizable boost of acceptance and application because it is put to sexual uses or exploitation. Whether ‘the pill’ wholly fulfils this observation is a matter of debate, I suspect not, since it also has given tremendous freedom to women. However from printing onwards (‘What the Butler Saw…’ VHS, DVD and of course the internet) technology has become a massive vehicles of pornography. I think it is important to note that there has always been a sex industry – one estimate for the late 18th century suggests one in five women in London were at one time or other in their lives, prostitutes (a statistic I find hard to believe (see: http://www.economist.com/node/14636924)). Similarly rates of syphilis infection in Britain in the 19th century were high (http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/publichealth/sti.aspx) . What I think is different about today’s oppressive sexualisation of women is that our society itself is far, far more influenced by images – and images consumed in a private environment, as media is now predominantly consumed in a private or individual space. What is lost is the humanity that personal relationships – and their consequences – foster between individuals; in short the fact almost all personal relationships involve some degree of effort and that fruitful relationships involve an element of ‘dying to self’. I think the effect of ‘the pill’ in part has a similar social impact. In that the consequences of sex are diminished and hence perhaps its significance and importance.

    Hence I think there are several social and cultural phenomena that come together regarding the issues you have discussed. Therefore this is ample scope to argue that a convergence of feminist and Catholic thinking does not necessarily mean they have the same perspective or worldview. The feminist view, while in some cases is able to embrace the spiritual from a holistic point of view, will, nevertheless, lack the prophetic or sacramental understanding of sex and sexuality while it remains outside of Christian theology.

    Peter Denshaw
    London

  10. The feminism I encountered at University must have been the old fashioned kind, the kind that saw porn as harming all women, because it degraded all women by reducing them all to sexual objects. The same with prostitution. I remember a very strong short story about a woman whose husband used porn by Alice Walker which put the dangers of these in no uncertain terms.

    I feel rather shocked and saddened by a wave of feminism that seems to see both these activities as OK as long as women are consenting. It shows a rather shallow understanding of psychological/ social factors at play and no understanding of spiritual ones. Would they be happy with to sit by while a woman remains in an abusive relationship or self harms? There is no sense of the dignity of women created in the image of God. Maybe a sign that a newer brand of feminism has reduced women to ‘It is OK if it seems OK to you’. I wonder if it is playing to a culture that reduces all humanity down to consumers and moraliy and ethics down to whether it makes individuals feel happy in the present moment. Don’t know. I will need to think about that one.

    Lots to think about here and in all the comments. Thank you Caroline.

    (As an aside the baddies in Merlin do include beautiful women- Morgana and Morgose both very evil and very beautiful but maybe they just fall into the femme fatale image. Gwen is the vituous one and although very pretty is played like the girl next door. Arthur is just there as eye candy.)

  11. Pornography is peculiar to mankind in that it can and does affect sexual libido.
    Porn has no affect at all with Pandas : ask the Chinese!
    Unfortunaely when porn walks in, ‘love and affection’ for ones partner walk out .Ones status changes from subject of affection to merely an object of conveniance which may be exploited eg Sultans of Ottoman Empire and their harems!Subjective love is peculiar to mankind/womenkind ; objective love is common to lower species,namely animals;their is no subjective love as portrayed by Walt Disney – we must allow artistic licence however in the interst of entertainment

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