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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

protest literature and theories of sexuality

An anonymous course shopper in the open thread below had asked for recommendations for Lit and Arts cores, and I suggested LitArts A-86: American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac, which I took last spring. For the final project in the class, we had the option of creating our own works of protest literature. This was mine.

It's a portrait of my roommate posing as the Virgin Mary masturbating, intended to provoke thought about the valuation and/or devaluation of sexual self-knowledge in our society, particularly with regard to women. I wanted to portray female masturbation as a positive, celebratory act, and I wanted to challenge viewers to question the concept of sexual purity that the Madonna image often symbolizes. Does our society consider non-reproductive sexuality compatible with spirituality and religiosity? Do we encourage women to explore and enjoy their own bodies outside of contexts in which they are performing for heterosexual men? Even though it does not overtly deny the Madonna's "virginity," does the portrait alter the viewer's conception of Mary's chastity and virtue? Is the picture offensive? If so, how and why?

Just thought I'd put it out there as a plug for Protest Lit--I had fun in the class and it got me thinking. Of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the portrait, too.

Also, if you're at all interested in studying these issues in an academic course, you should definitely shop WGS 1003: Theories of Sexuality, taught by visiting professor Judith Halberstam, one of the country's foremost experts on sexuality and masculinity. She's a big deal. I attended the class today and it was marvelous.

Good luck shopping!


At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Meghan Grizzle said...

Before I address any of your questions, I'd appreciate it if you could address a few of mine. They're not meant to attack, although it's obvious that I take issue with your protest picture; they're more meant to probe a little deeper so I can understand from where you're coming:

Why did you want "to portray female masturbation as a positive, celebratory act"? What about it do you think is positive and what does it celebrate?

Why did you want "to challenge viewers to question the concept of sexual purity that the Madonna image often symbolizes"? Are you questioning that the Madonna is associated with sexual purity or are you questioning sexual purity in itself? If the latter, then why?

Finally, why should we "encourage women to explore and enjoy their own bodies"? Is this 'pleasure' an end in itself or is it a means to some other, greater end?



P.S. In response to your post on November 8 (sorry, I was perusing this blog and only recently came across this post), there are a few women who regularly approach people in the Yard, Loker, etc. and ask if they are Christian. I myself, a white, female Christian who you wouldn't think would be a 'target,' have been approached twice. I think you were just targeted because they have a concern for anyone and everyone, not because of your apparel or appearance. These women most likely are participants in a cult-like group, and thus I wouldn't recommend participating in any of their activities.

At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a growing up, I used to read "teen magazines." Every so often, in the "Letters to the Health Expert" column, there would appear a letter that read something like, "My dad tells me that if someone masturbates, they will die/become blind/become infertile. Is this true? Signed, So-and-So, Age 14." It saddens me that in this day and age, people still spread lies about masturbation in order to discourage it, especially among females, as though the act of masturbation actually endangered one's soul. I think that, among other things, female masturbation celebrates the fact that we live in a society in which the potential for female sexual pleasure is beginning to be recognized as no less important than the potential for male sexual pleasure. In some countries in which female genital mutilation is practiced, I believe, a female's clitoris is mutilated for the specific purpose of disallowing her to experience sexual pleasure. In our society, women are, to some extent, free to choose whether to experience sexual pleasure or not. Whether or not this sexual pleasure serves a higher good or not is a separate question, but it is important that our society allows women to be *free* to choose to whether or not to experience it. Freedom is itself a good, although one may of course use freedom for good, evil, or neutral purposes. Equality is also inherently a good, and I think it is important to ask ourselves why some societies work harder to discourage female masturbation than they do to discourage male masturbation. What is it that such societies are afraid of? Of course, you may believe that male masturbation and female masturbation are *both* evil, but I don't think it would make sense to claim that one is less of an evil than the other. Female masturbation needs to be viewed in a larger context of sexual behaviors, including not only male masturbation but also intercourse. Our society claims that a woman doesn't need a man in order to be complete, but this isn't really true if a woman is only allowed to experience sexual self-knowledge through intercourse with a man. People are not really free or equal if they do not have complete information, and I think it is important for a woman to have complete knowledge about the potential of her body.

Besides, on the practical side of things, masturbation provides an alternative to sexual activities that are riskier. I would rather that my daughter masturbated than that she fulfilled her sexual urges by having unsafe sex and getting pregnant. Masturbation gives a woman autonomy by increasing her control over her own carnal urges, and self-control is never a bad thing. I really believe that by having the alternative of masturbation, people are less likely to jump into sexual intercourse unwisely. The more people know about sexuality in general, and the more they know about their alternatives, the more likely they are to make wise, knowledgeable choices about their sexual behaviors. Knowledge is good.

I haven't yet said half of what I believe about female masturbation: namely, I believe sexuality is inherently good, aside from its potential for pleasure, and aside from the related goods of freedom and equality. I think it is really no coincidence that sexuality has such a fascination for poets, artists, and religious people: it has a special place in Tantric Buddhism, etc. I believe sexuality is really a means to lift a person to a higher plane of being, a place of higher consciousness and clarity. There are many things that give merely pleasure: food, etc., but I believe there is a reason why sexuality is so much more fascinating to artists and visionaries than food is. Some visionaries have felt that they were living life in the highest possible way when they were in a trance, speaking directly to their God; I believe that sexuality is a doorway into such a higher state. I have yet to understand why some people believe that sexuality and immorality are words that have something to do with each other. Also, I have yet to understand the importance of the word purity, which has connotations of both cleanness and morality, as though cleanness and morality were subjects intricately tied. Of course, self-control is important, but you need to know what you are controlling yourself against before your self-control has any meaning. These are my beliefs, anyway, and you may not share them, but I hardly appreciate it when society tries to restrict them.

A rather long-winded anonymous female reader

At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To clarify my last paragraph, of course I believe there are some sexual behaviors that are obviously immoral in that they hurt people: rape is an obvious example. I also think that moderation and self-control are important, and sex addiction is certainly not desirable as it limits one's potential to live fully in other ways. But I would challenge anyone to explain why think having the alternative to masturbate in moderation is more harmful than beneficial, and why they think it is particularly harmful in the case of women.

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear Harvey Mansfield is teaching a class in the WGS Department next spring.

At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

I wanted to address the issue from my own perspective which is as a Catholic, and a practicing one at that, though certainly not dogmatic. Thus, some of my comments will no doubt be slightly away from the norm of college students.

1. I don't think that masturbation is inherently bad or good, though it certainly can become bad. It is an inherently selfish act--there's no one else around, so it's simply about you. That's not bad all the time, and it is good at times, though abuse of it can lead to people becoming very selfish sexually. That is, by focusing on themselves constantly, they lose the ability to listen to, interact with, or respond to a real live partner.

2. I think there is too much shame associated with masturbation, though I disagree with a fundamental assumption that seems to permeate the post: that female masturbation is somewhate more taboo than male masturbation. In popular American culture, I think that the opposite has become true. Male masturbation is seen as the guy "failing" to get a girl at the end of the night, and having to make due by himself. On the other hand, there is a certain glamour associated with female masturbation. It is seen as an empowering gesture in some ways--the woman found no one good enough for her, so she took things into her own hands (so to speak). A woman can say that she masturbates and it is alluring to males; the opposite is not true at all.

3. I disagree with anon 1 in that I don't think that sexuality is inherently good. It can be bad, just like masturbation. Particularly when people become obsessed or driven by sexuality, it blocks out things that are better. For instance, I think that an emotional connection should be valued more than a purely physical connection. No doubt that sexuality improves and strengthens emotional connections, and it is necessary to create some level of intimacy, but sexuality on its own is empty. It can be extremely damamging or extremely beneficial.

To get to some of the "Catholic" stances on some of the questions posed:

4. Anon 1 says, "I have yet to understand why some people believe that sexuality and immorality are words that have something to do with each other. Also, I have yet to understand the importance of the word purity, which has connotations of both cleanness and morality, as though cleanness and morality were subjects intricately tied."

Sexuality and immorality are words that certainly have something to do with each other--you temper this question in the subsequent post. To understand the idea of cleanness and morality being tied together, I think there may be a way of answering this question in light of some of the things you say. There is something "special" about sexuality when compared to other pleasures, something that may appear to be spiritual in some ways. I think that by being promiscuous, you can degrade that special position of sexuality and make it into a mechanical release. I think that's what masturbation might be seen as by people who oppose it, something that degrades the spiritual nature of sexuality through making it banal.

5. Finally, why is the picture offensive? Katie asks, "Does our society consider non-reproductive sexuality compatible with spirituality and religiosity?" I think this is a fine question to ask. I think the two can be compatible, without being juxtaposed as they are in the picture. The choice of Mary is particularly interesting, no doubt the purpose of such a choice. Catholics venerate Mary, which means that Catholics hold Mary in a special place of honor, greater than the Saints(it is important to note that this is not "worship", lest we be called polytheists).

Part of the reason this is so is Mary's purity, but why does this matter? It is because it represents a sacrifice to God's will and God's plan. That is, Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant, and she had to agree to give herself over to God's will. Luke 1:38 says, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." The purity of Mary is important not only because it represents the miracle of the virgin birth, but also because it represents a willingness to trust in God and His plan. Mary is without sin, yet she willingly accepts what was a great embarrassment--prenancy outside of marriage--because she trusts in God. Mary is, according to Catholic thought, without sin, and completely innocent. Sexualizing Mary in particular, is offensive to Catholics (in my opinion at least), because it destroys in some way the miracle of the virgin birth, the innocence of Mary, and renders her no better than anyone else. She is thought of being so faithful to God that sexual desires do no impinge upon her. This is ofcourse, not possible for us regular humans--sexuality is part of our lives--but Mary is no regular human. She transcends standard human desires.

I realize that the last paragraph is not the clearest, but there is no real way of portraying the argument as linear and clear; there is a lot of circling and hints at ideas, which is the best I can do. I should also add that this is my interpretation of the issues at hand, and should no way stand for Catholics writ large. Also, I would have never thought that she was masturbating unless it had been pointed out to me.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger kavulla said...

Interesting that you've chosen Mary for the project.

More interesting than any of the ho-hum questions on sexuality you've presented is, I think, that it is the Christian icon Mary who is presented. Now, this might be a gesture to the fact that we're a Christian society; but still, imagine the reaction should you have chosen Muhammed or the Saudi woman-on-the-street (not that such a thing exists, of course, without a male escort, but still...). I'm just trying to picture the outrage now. Why, if you published such a thing in a Danish newspaper, you might even have to fear for your life.

Wonderful what can be done under the auspices of freedom of speech and one of the tolerant Abrahamic religions, eh?


Also, just a technical point. Should Mary have done what the photograph depicts her as doing, it would indeed "overtly deny the Madonna's 'virginity.'"

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Kavulla.

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Abrahamic religions tolerant? Have you heard of a little thing called The Crusades, Travis? Have you heard of a little place called Palestine? Have you heard of a little thing called Western imperialism? I could go on and on with this (Salem witch trials, "Christian" beliefs on homosexuality/women, etc.) but you get the point. This isn't supposed to be an "Abrahamic religion"-bashing thing. Just wanted to point out something that ticked me off a bit.

Keep speaking freely, Katie. God bless Amerikkka!

At 1:34 AM, Anonymous mike said...

To Jersey Slugger,

I know your post is quite emotionally charged, but I think, in the end, it's simply wrong. To Wit, I followed your crusades link. The last one took place in 1291, so it seems a little misleading to bring in something over 700 years old to a discussion of modern sexuality and religion. Palestine, presumably, was an effort to miscredit Judaism as a "tolerant Abrahamic-Religion", but to portray the conflict as purely religious(particularly on the side of Israel) is not accurate. Finally, in an attempt to discredit Christianity as tolerant, you list the Salem witch trials (over 300 years ago) and '"Christian beliefs on homosexuality/women'. I agree there there should be more tolerance on this last issue from Christians, but I think Kavulla's point is that such a picture depicting a religious figure would simply not be permitted in a Theocracy as run in many Middle East countries. You cannot say that "Amerikkka", as you put it, is less tolerant than Saudi Arabia or Iran of women/homosexuals.

At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Travis raises an interesting question about why depicting a masturbating Islamic icon is considered more offensive than depicting a masturbating Christian icon. However, I think Katie's question of why it is considered a slur to depict someone masturbating in the first place is a more basic academic question that is also interesting and shouldn't be discounted.

To be honest, I, too, was initially somewhat offended by Katie's photograph. But I came to think that the accompanying questions show that the photograph is a sincere effort to seek answers to important questions about sexual tolerance. That is, I believe that its primary intent is to seek answers rather than to offend people. This goes back to Deborah's post about the racist T-shirts, in which someone brought up the important question, "How much does intent matter?" In this case, apparently, some people feel that good intentions are not enough to excuse a viscerably disturbing image...

At 2:26 AM, Blogger andrew golis said...

Just thought I'd point out something great about the previous post, something that I think is a credit to both Katie and the above anonymous commenter.

"To be honest, I, too, was initially somewhat offended by Katie's photograph. But I came to think that the accompanying questions show that the photograph is a sincere effort to seek answers to important questions about sexual tolerance."

She was offended, but was willing to still think, and Katie offered thoughts to engage her so that the piece did more than just offend. Kavulla mentions that such a thing would get a different reaction in other communities, which I think is a testament to our own. But it's also a testament to the fact that Katie offered more than just a challenging/offensive (depending on your perspective) image, but also an explanation and an opportunity for conversation. Consider Katie's critique, for instance, of the Salient/Fulla controversy earlier in the year (apologies Kavulla). She didn't object primarily to the attempt at humor, but to the lack of an actual attempt to create a dialogue around it (rather than a fairly useless back and forth over whether or not it's offensive):

"If the Salient truly wanted to start dialogue about the issues that the Fulla ad jokingly but half-seriously alluded to, but feared that merely printing a longer, intelligent article wouldn’t have garnered enough interest, a better strategy would have been to go ahead and print the ad along with an accompanying article. (And no, it's not their job, as some have asserted, to include a wider range of opinions just to avoid criticism--they're not claiming to be 'balanced.' One piece would have sufficed.) That way they would still have gotten a rise out of people, but readers would also have had serious points to respond to in beginning a discussion. It would have (1) hastened the dialogue-fostering process Travis wanted; (2) helped (perhaps) to nip the whole free speech/cultural offensiveness debate in the bud (and let’s be honest, that debate is tired unless you can get into cultural specifics, which we didn't really); and (3) demonstrated the publishers’ sincere desire to share and compare knowledge with readers, not just ruffle feathers with tasteless material."

Just a thought and a little appreciation.

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, but did Katie follow her own advice and print the picture she created alongside an article when she submitted it for her class? Or did she submit it by itself? It seems like in order to explain this picture she would need an accompanying verbal explanation--I didn't even see the whole masturbation thing until I read the text. I assume she had to submit some text to explain to her prof/TF what she was implying, but it seems to me like she intended the picture to be the protest in itself. Anyway,the point is, I'd like to see if she was being hypocritical with her critique of the Salient ad.

Don't even get me started on the controvery surrounding the Salient ad. My issue is not with the content per se (I'm not even saying I approve of the content), but more with people's reactions. I'm still convinced, like Travis seems to be, that if they had printed an ad mocking right-wing evangelical Christians (and I use that term sincerely, since I consider myself to be one), no one would have complained. People are overly sensitive when it comes to questioning a minority group (Muslims, or the subset of radical, fundamentalist Muslims, for example), but a majority group (white people who voted for a President many of you are against, for example) is fair game. I'm still wondering why that is considered acceptable. Shouldn't everybody or nobody be fair game?

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Mike, no one said it was less tolerant as if to compare it with other world regions. My point was it is fallacious to call the Abrahamic religions flatly tolerant. So many of the Western world powers were founded or long existed on strong religious beliefs based upon Abrahamic religions though still perpetrated huge atrocities and continue to in some scenarios.

As a nation whose very named is derived from a biblical character and whose population is 77% Jewish, Israel is heavily influenced by religion and the long tension over that specific region between various religions is well-documented. You cannot neglect to look at religion is a strong factor in that scenario.

I understand Kuvalla's overall point. He is correct. Such free speech wouldn't be tolerated under certain governments.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Sorry for the hiatus, everyone--I'll try to respond to some of people's questions and concerns.

To Meghan, I wanted to portray female masturbation positively not because I think it is inherently positive and always beneficial, but because I think it *can* be positive in a way that our sex-negative society currently does not allow or acknowledge. While Mike points out that "A woman can say that she masturbates and it is alluring to males," I don't consider this evidence of women's empowerment since the measure of appropriateness or worth is still based on men's wants and needs. I tried to portray masturbation positively yet not in the way it's often presented in our Sex-and-the-City age, when it's seldom more than a salacious performance intended to spark men's desires and/or to spark women's desires based on imagining themselves in the role of the sexy and desireable masturbating woman.

"What about it do you think is positive and what does it celebrate?" I think masturbation can be positive when it encourages self-knowledge, self-valuation, and appreciation for the capacities of one's own body. I also disagree that it's inherently and always selfish: in sexual relationships in which partners place emotional importance on pleasing and satisfying each other, a woman with knowledge of her body can help her partner to help her, which not only makes her feel good but can make her partner happy, too (there's a difference between knowing your body because 'a woman who knows her body is sexy' and thus more of a turn-on to her partner, and knowing your body in order to communicate desires to someone who cares about *your* satisfaction). Again, I'm not arguing that everyone should be sexually active--that's not the point. I simply advocate allowing women the psychological freedom to embrace and explore their sexualities, if they so choose, without aspiring to become (or being automatically labelled as) lacivious, dehumanized sex goddesses.

"Are you questioning that the Madonna is associated with sexual purity or are you questioning sexual purity in itself? If the latter, then why?" I question the latter. I don't think sex is inherently polluting; our culture, on the other hand, tends to take that as a given. I also question the dichotomy of purity and impurity, including its implicit assumption that purity is inherently good or preferable. Why should we prefer things we think are pure to things we think are impure (or mixed)?

"Finally, why should we "encourage women to explore and enjoy their own bodies"? Is this 'pleasure' an end in itself or is it a means to some other, greater end?" For many people, pleasure is both an end in itself and a means to other ends. I don't see this as an 'either/or' question. As for a greater end, women's exploration and enjoyment of our bodies is a good thing when (not because, but when) it enables us to appreciate the power and beauty of this aspect of ourselves separately from its propensity to attract and/or seduce sexual partners.

I hope that clarifies some things; I'd love to know your thoughts on this, given that girls' sexuality seems to be an important topic on the blog you write for.

Okay, moving along, I'll try to address a few more things from various people's posts, in no particular order.

Jersey, I think the dialogue might benefit if you'd explain what you mean by "God Bless Amerikkka" rather than throwing it out there and expecting everyone to understand what you're saying (whether or not we disagree). How, specifically, do your concerns pertain to what's being addressed in this discussion?

Travis, you're partly right--I chose Mary as an icon because she carries significant meaning for many people in the audience I was presenting to, and because of the religion she represents, which dominates and permeates U.S. culture in many ways. But I also chose her in part because of the 'technicality' you bring up--what it means to be a virgin. According to common definitions, a virgin is a person who has never engaged in sexual intercourse; as an adjective, it means untainted or unsullied. My picture doesn't deny the miracle of immaculate conception; yet, as one anonymous points out, people may find it viscerally disturbing, presumeably because although Mary is still 'virginal' in one sense, she is nevertheless 'sinning;' she is not innocent. I hoped that people would wrestle with their own ideas of innocence and purity--sexual, spiritual, and psychological.

As for my ability to portray a Christian image without a lot of outcry, I'm very thankful to enjoy free speech here to the degree that I do, and I support the struggles of people around the world who are fighting for similar civil rights, whether under a democracy or theocracy. Just to clarfiy, wasn't part of the controversey and resentment surrounding the Danish cartoon owing to the fact that many Muslims consider it a sin to depict the image of Mohammad in any form, whether reverent or irreverent?

Also, as Andrew and the anonymous after Mike note, I was sincerely trying to do this in order to engender thoughtful dialogue. Last anonymous, I did give an oral presentation to the entire audience that saw my portrait, partly because many people like Mike probably would have missed the masturbation element had I not pointed it out. Hey--I don't claim to be a photographer, I'm just trying to ask some thought-provoking questions. :)

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

"Amerikkka" is the spelling once used by the Black Panther Party to identify this nation which is still structurally racist, terrorizes its own citizens who proudly challenge the status quo, and promotes its ideology to the underprivileged masses. I feel that the term is still relevant in today's society despite the more clandestine manifestations of racism, terror, and ideological promotion in U.S. society today.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Okay, so what you're saying is that while we can criticize other nations for being repressive, we must also recognize the ways in which our own government and society stifle (intentionally or unintentionally) freedom and justice? Is that how it fits in with the context of Travis's comment?

I appreciate the clarification (and education about the word's origin); without it I had trouble seeing how the term/phrase fit in with what we are talking about here.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Pyrrhus said...

Allow me to make an unhelpfully pedantic point:

You say "My picture doesn't deny the miracle of immaculate conception."

Since you are talking about Mary's virginity, I take it you were referring to the Virgin Birth (Incarnation of Christ)?

The Immaculate Conception is something else.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Aha, I see...Thanks! Definitely not unhelpful; this is all about learning. And yeah, I was trying to refer to the Virgin Birth as mike explained it in his first post.

If I understand the link correctly, the immaculate conception actually means that "Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but her soul was acted upon by God (kept "immaculate") at the time of her conception," so that she "lived a life completely free from sin," and that fits in with mike's explanation that she was "so faithful to God that sexual desires do not impinge upon her," so that she "transcends standard human desires." If this is a fair characterization, then I would say that this belief has had a profound impact on the most fundamental of our society's attitudes toward sexual desire as base and 'merely' human. I'm not saying that the belief and corresponding sex-negative attitudes are wrong, but I do ask that we (1) not accept them uncritically as given, and (2) thoughtfully examine their impacts (positive, negative, neutral) on our society, especially the ways in which attitudes about sex interact with gender hierarchies and gendered power dynamics. Apart from the stigmatization of female masturbation and/or making it into a performance requiring a (male) audience in order to be legitimate, can we come up with other examples of manifestations of sex-negative attitudes in U.S. culture? Can we think of ways in which sex negativity impacts intersections of race, class, and gender?

At 3:29 PM, Blogger kavulla said...

Masturbation makes one unchaste, according to the Catechism of the Catholic church. If Mary is depicted as masturbating, she is (according to the Church) not a virgin and, moreover, is committing "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."

Why? You can find the relevant part of the Catechism here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm

This is just to say that to a devout Catholic, depicting the Mother of God in a masturbatory pose (and thereby denying her virginity as well as labelling her a grave sinner) is just as bad as depicting Mohammed with a bomb under his turban.

In the old days, as "Jersey Slugger" points out, you would find yourself in a rather tough, intolerant spot. Now, the Catholic Church and many, many of its practitioners have come to accept modernity, free speech, and so on.

We haven't beheaded anyone for a number of centuries, or stabbed anyone to death in a park for making a movie we don't like (the fate that befell Theo van Gogh).

Re: Golis's point about 'raising questions' through parody, this particular display has a significant threshold to overcome in terms of posing worthy, meaningful questions, defaming (as it does) a venerated religious symbol, rather than a doll. Whether it's a testament to the relative lack of scrutiny given to Cambridge Common vs. the campus conservative publication, or whether it's merely because insulting Christians (as opposed to Muslims) is somehow okay, it's interesting this should be viewed as 'tolerant' and 'acceptable' by those who threw a tizzy fit over The Salient's publication of a parody that noted the strange blend of consumerism and radical Islamic values.

Of course, the legitimacy of questions raised by one or another parody is really in the eye of the beholder. Katie is on record as not approving of the Salient's parody because it didn't adequately prompt back-and-forth debate. I think it did, on the other hand. I'll leave the legitimacy of the questions raised by the blasphemous depiction of Mary to others' consideration. For now, they've been underwhelming, although that elucidation of the etymology of "amerikkka" was very helpful and amusing, Jersey.

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Travis has an excellent piece up on a related topic on RedIvy.org now.

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm sorry, but it's pretty hard to take either katie or jersey slugger seriously. blasphemous depictions of christian religious figures (particularly as a means to "encourage discussion" of topics like sexuality) are soooo cliche. like, unbearably so. like, it's been done millions of times before. i'm not offended on religious grounds (as far as the genre goes, yours is quite tame, plus i'm not a christian) but i am really unimpressed artistically.

jersey slugger's comments are just inane. "amerikkka"? please. name one country in the world where blacks have a higher standard of living than in the us. where else do world-class universities lower their standards in order for blacks to matriculate? your knowledge of history/culture is very weak.

At 12:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the previous anonymous: Katie said above that she never claimed to be a photographer, and therefore it's rather disingenuous and below-the-belt to criticize her project for purely *aesthetic* reasons (i.e., its "cliche"ness, and its inability to impress you "artistically"). If you take issue with her project for moral, political, and/or philosophical reasons (which I think you do), then it would further the discussion more if you said so forthrightly and then presented an argument defending your stance.

It is true that blacks have a high standard of living in the U.S. compared to blacks in many other parts of the world, but this is largely because people in general have a high standard of living in the U.S. I think Jersey's point is something different: it seems he is pointing out a *disparity* between the standard of living of American blacks and the standard of living of American whites. This disparity manifests itself in terms of a disparity in income, a disparity in healthcare received, etc. The many complex causes of these disparities would make an interesting topic for a prolonged discussion.

At 12:53 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

The complex causes of disparities in academic performance among blacks and whites is also an interesting and complicated issue; I look forward to discussing all these disparities here in future posts. That's what we're about--helping to create dialogue. Even if we're not always perfect at it. Thanks for that reminder, most recent anonymous.

Travis, I'm sorry you consider my questions (both in the original post and in the comments I've written) too simplistic or uninteresting to warrant even a simple response; I'm also disappointed that you don't deign to offer your own alternative questions or comments that pertain specifically to sexism and sexuality.

But you've offered some interesting thoughts, so thanks for that.

Fully admitting that I know very little about the Catechism, and with appreciation for your contribution on that, I didn't find that the literature you cited equated virginity and chastity the way you do:

"People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single."

So a person can be chaste without being a virgin, that much is clear, but I don't think it follows that someone who is unchaste (by masturbating) is therefore not a virgin. The way the word 'virgin' is used in the text seems to align with the definition I offered earlier.

But that's not your major point. Clearly, some people will find my portrait offensive, and you're concerned that while I can get away with such blasphemous depictions without suffering harm as a result, other people in the world are not so fortunate. But while you attribute the difference in reaction to a problem of Islamic intolerance, I see it as a problem of intolerance, period.

In your own post on RedIvy, referring to the (partly violent) outrage expressed by various Muslim factions in reaction to the Mohammad cartoons, you comment, "What a serendipitous moment to explore Islam's compatibility with Western mores like freedom of the press."

If you want to condemn fundamentalist violence, uncritical reactionary uproar, and the persecution and murder of artists and intellectuals, can't you do it without insinuating that Islam itself is incompatible with freedom of the press? Throughout the piece, you refer to "Islam" and "Muslims" as though these are monolithic categories with insurmountably undemocratic properties. The issue is not Islam per se, but situations in which dogmatism trumps civil liberties, especially through the use of violence. Islamic fundamentalism, when it leads to repression, is a problem, I agree. But instead of blaming Islam and suggesting that it's a backward religion, mightn't you focus instead on asking/explaining why violent fundamentalism is so widespread in the Muslim world? And of course, while it may be more rare, we shouldn't forget to examine violent fundamentalism and repression of free speech in the West as well, not to mention the ways in which religious values permeate our legal structures and even seemingly secular cultural norms.

Finally, if you read carefully my post that Andrew refers to, you'll find that I actually don't object to your ad "because it didn't adequately prompt back-and-forth debate." Rather than judging it based on the outcome, I disapproved because of the process--as Andrew said, a "lack of an actual attempt to create a dialogue."

From my post:

"Publications should be free to print controversial opinions, but disguising those opinions in half-serious, potentially offensive parodies *without offering supplemental clarification* just comes off as cowardly [emphasis added]. It makes for an easy cop-out: ‘well of course we don’t actually believe THAT; anyone can see that’s ridiculous.’ The Salient team should be allowed to seem cowardly if it wants to—that doesn’t amount to shirking a ‘journalistic responsibility.’ It’s just a bad decision.

"If the Salient truly wanted to start dialogue about the issues that the Fulla ad jokingly but half-seriously alluded to, but feared that merely printing a longer, intelligent article wouldn’t have garnered enough interest, a better strategy would have been to go ahead and print the ad along with an accompanying article. (And no, it's not their job, as some have asserted, to include a wider range of opinions just to avoid criticism--they're not claiming to be 'balanced.' One piece would have sufficed.) That way they would still have gotten a rise out of people, but readers would also have had serious points to respond to in beginning a discussion. It would have (1) hastened the dialogue-fostering process Travis wanted; (2) helped (perhaps) to nip the whole free speech/cultural offensiveness debate in the bud (and let’s be honest, that debate is tired unless you can get into cultural specifics, which we didn't really); and (3) demonstrated the publishers’ sincere desire to share and compare knowledge with readers, not just ruffle feathers with tasteless material."

Knowing that some people would probably find my piece offensive, I actually asked the questions, "Is the picture offensive? If so, how and why?" I was trying to minimize the potential for the offensiveness of the image to shut down productive dialogue by asking people to articulate their reactions, rather than just getting upset and/or tuning out. Even if you don't find my questions compelling, I hope you don't seriously question my sincerity in trying to get people to talk thoughtfully.

At 12:55 AM, Anonymous a reader said...

Someone already commented on this previously, but I wanted to reiterate the observation that I wouldn't have been able to tell that the woman in the picture is masturbating if you hadn't said anything. It may well be a technological problem (the scan isn't very big/clear), and I am sympathetic if you are an amateur photographer, but it doesn't *look*, anyway, as if either of those things is what's to blame for the image's 'subtlety' -- she really is not posed in any kind of way that suggests she is masturbating, as far as I can tell.....I mean, how are we supposed to tell? Her facical expression? The fact that we can't see her left hand?

I'm wondering if you can comment on this -- obviously it wouldn't accomplish anything if the photograph were *too* explicit, but as it stands, I think the image the photograph is meant to convey isn't really explicit at all. Is this ambiguity intentional on your part? On the one hand, I respect any attempt to be as subtle with this idea as possible; obviously (as this discussion shows), it raises an issue that is delicate for many. I am also wondering if the pose you chose is meant to mirror or suggest some more traditional one, recognizable to those who are familiar with religious art?

On the other hand, though, I feel like the ambiguity actually complicates the discussion. For one thing, it means that the image can't stand on its own and still convey the same message -- we need the artist there (or the title, or whatever) to tell us what is going on; without that description, one might not notice anything particularly provocative or taboo about the image itself. This in turn removes the possibility for the viewer to just look at the image, engage its subject matter and have a dialogue with him/herself before engaging in discussion with others; I may be alone in thinking this, but I find that to be an important step. It also just seems to fall short of achieving what you might want to accomplish -- it's almost so subtle as to avoid provocation at all. While the idea behind it is very provocative and interesting (perhaps offensive? I'm undecided, though I agree with your positions on female sexuality and masturbation), the image doesn't seem to be as strong as the thought which produced it.

And also....please don't think I'm trying to hate on your photography skills....if the answer is just 'I didn't have a good enough camera to show what I wanted to,' or if your roommate didn't feel comfortable posing in a more explicit way, then I understand. But I think the point here is still worth considering -- I mean, if you had a model who would do anything, and a really good camera, would you still have shot the picture this way? If not, then how would it look; if so, why?

At 10:30 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Hi reader, thanks for your questions, which are so thoughtful as to practically answer themselves. :)

I definitely agree with you that good art should be able to stand alone, allowing viewers to wrestle with it themselves before researching the artist's intentions. My picture largely fails in this respect (while some people have been able to see right away what's happening, most don't), although I think that if I were to title it, as you suggested, something along the lines of 'Virgin Mary Masturbating,' it would make the viewing experience a little more interesting in that the title would make a viewer look at the picture again more closely, searching for what they think are telltale signs of masturbation (obscured hand, body postition, facial expression, etc.).

I did want to make the photograph subtle; I may have gone too far in that direction, but I had my reasons for trying, many of which you have anticipated. I wanted to portray the good qualities of Mary that I have seen-- serenity, piousness, beauty--in order to heighten the juxtaposition between her iconic status and the action she's engaging in in the photo. From the waist up, she looks to me like Mary (although I'm sure people more familar with depictions of her will find many faults with my portrayal--like the fact that in many paintings she's depicted wearing a blue-colored fabric); the image from the waist down seems to contradict that identity. But I also tried to portray good qualities in order to question why non-copulatory sexuality (or in Mary's case, sexuality in general) is inconsistent with religious ethics. I think Mary looks beautiful, not in spite of what she's doing, and not because of it, but including it.

During the shoot, my roommate and I experimented with different facial expressions, and I ended up liking this one because it's not the kind of normal, ecstasy-filled, quasi-pornographic, moan-suggesting image people may associate with mastubration (again, keeping in mind the ways that female sexuality is often depicted for men's benefit, I didn't want to make this into a peep show kind of thing), yet to me it does suggest a certain amount of concentration consistent with the action I was trying to portray. I also like that her eyes are looking upward because it reminds me of a communication or bond with God. Maybe she's questioning/challenging God's disapproval of what she's doing, or maybe they've already come to an understanding and God supports her in her quest for self-knowledge, so that she can still be pious and at the same time experience her body more fully.

If I could have done things differently, I would have set up my own light sources to be able to control the light and shadows on her thighs so that I could expose more without exposing too much. As it happened, we were just working with window light, and this was the best we came up with. I probably would have experimented with more body positions and shot angles. Honestly, it was a little awkward to dress my roommate up as a religious icon, sit her down, and tell her to look like she's masturbating. It's not something either of us had had experience with. Also, I was shooting with a digital camera and the original images look much more explicit than the ones I manipulated using Photoshop, so while my friends looked at the originals and had immediate reactions, it's more difficult to see what's going on when looking at the final product. I was definitely glad to have the chance to give a presentation in connection with the piece.

Since it's my project and it involved my own thought processes, I'm prone to overthinking and overanalyzing it, so I realize that it's just not as compelling to other people as it is to me. But now that I've made it, the ideas and questions I associate with it continue to float around in my head, and it's fun to note connections to real life. For instance, I wonder whether some religious people will reject out of hand, for no reason other than its subject matter, the FemSex course being offered this semester. I think many people, religious or not, will be wary of it since it may represent a sex-positive attitude, which doesn't mesh with what most of us have been taught all our lives. Meghan, did you end up going to check it out?

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Meghan Grizzle said...

Sorry for being a little MIA after my initial questions. I haven't been able to read the whole discussion thoroughly, nor am I able to comment completely at the moment. Just a couple of things though:

I'm heading over to the FemSex intro meeting today at 1. I'm a little wary, not because of the subject matter, but because I don't think people will be particularly welcoming of me if they know me/have heard of my conservative Christian leanings. I also wonder how my perspective will fit into the whole thing, if it will be tolerated. But I really hope that it will work out and I'm looking forward to finding out more.

I can understand why people would reject something out of hand because of its subject matter--I think people do that for a lot of things. Many non-religious people would reject a seminar somehow related to religion because of its subject matter. I'm making this analogy since I am assuming that the attitude of the course will be sex-outside-of-marriage-positive, which doesn't go well with my own Christian beliefs.

Also, I find it important to mention that not all Christians believe in the permanent virginity of Mary. I, for one, believe that Jesus may have had brothers and sisters. I don't know any Catholics who believe that, but I'm an evangelical, not a Catholic. I do of course believe that Jesus was born to her when she was a virgin. I don't know any Christians who don't believe that. I don't believe in the Immaculate Conception though; in my opinion, Mary was just as much a sinner as the rest of us are. Which then makes me think that maybe Mary could have masturbated (yes, I think masturbation is sinful). That's very uncomfortable for me to write, since this is the same woman who birthed my Lord and Savior. But she was a real person . . .

Anyway, I think the main reason I find your picture offensive is because I'd find any picture of a woman masturbating offensive. I suppose there are ways in which it could be done as a tool for helping someone overcome this sin (but I honestly can't fathom any). This picture, however, is not intended for this and it seems to be an attempt to subvert Christian notions of purity and sexuality (which indeed can go hand in hand), and I don't think they need to be subverted. I like them just the way they are.


P.S. I'm interested in hearing what more liberal Christians think about sexuality.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am interested in what you mean by "Christian notions of purity and sexuality." I am Christian and not evangelical and I don't necessarily understand what Christian notions of sexuality are as a unified thing, since, my guess from your post, is that my Christian notions of sexuality are different from yours.

As far as purity goes, I guess the word "purity" to me can be applied to a lot of different situations, even within a Christian context, and just doesn't seem to have a single, cohesive meaning. (Not that I think that sexuality does.)

I'm really not trying to antagonize you, I would just like to understand what you mean.

At 7:45 PM, Anonymous rob said...

it's not that i'm against women exploring their sexuality. BUT i realized why i found the picture unsettling. it's the fact that you (katie) are missing the point of mary and the virgin birth.

mary's story is irrevocably tied with that of her son, Christ Jesus. it is the story of God (the son) being sacrificed out of mercy, grace and love.

mary's life was NOT about exploring female sexuality or masturbation. that's a separate subject (and one that honestly i would be in favor of). but like i said, to USE mary in such a matter, to further a cause that's only peripheral to the story of her son, i find very inappropriate.

At 1:49 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

First off, thanks to everyone for helping me to push my own thought deeper on this issue, and for helping me to learn more about various Christian beliefs and perspectives. I realize now that I probably should have researched the history of Mary more heavily before appropriating her as a subject, if only in order to be able to better ensure that my own misconceptions didn't prevent me from conveying what I really wanted to convey.

Rob, I don't quite understand the logical connection between Mary's story being tied to Jesus and her life not being about exploring sexuality. By "not about" do you mean "not including?" Meghan's belief that Mary is the mother of God doesn't seem to lead her to the same conclusion. I certainly respect your feeling that my use of Mary was inappropriate, I'm just trying to clarify why you feel that way.

While I'm sincerely thankful for the honest critical responses that many of you have posted, at this point, I don't regret choosing the topic. Although I am not Christian, I feel entitled to question certain elements of Christianity, partly because there is no consensus about what 'true' Christianity is (as evidenced by Meghan and Mike's opposing views on whether or not Mary was a sinner), but mostly because many of the dominant moral standards in our society trace their roots to Christian beliefs, so that even people who would describe themselves as non-religious are likely to adhere (uncritically) to many moral standards with foundations in Judeo-Christian traditions. I have no problem with this in itself, but I do hope that we can be free to continually question mores, rather than simply accepting what's handed down to us as 'right' and 'proper.' In essence, the goal of my project wasn't to challenge the beliefs of Christian people, but to challenge those of people whose moral standards are indirectly (but hugely) affected by Christianity.

For instance, the concept of 'losing' one's virginity, which has a much more negative connotation for women than for men, is historically linked, in the U.S., with a Christian valuation of female virgins. Of course, many other societies and religions in the world also highly value female virginity, and evolution theorists would argue that virginity in females is important to humans because the first male who impregnates a certified virgin female can be 100% sure of his paternity. However, dominant American culture was not shaped by the various other religions and belief systems of the world; historically, we are undeniably a Christian-molded continent. Thus, I chose Mary because of her special resonance with the historically-shaped consciousness of the people I was speaking to (as opposed to, say, one of the virgins promised in the Islamic Traditions--not the Koran--to all Muslims in heaven, not just martyrs). Additionally, even though Islamic texts, to take one example, appear similar to Christian texts in their valuation of women's virginity, there may be interesting differences in the way sexuality on the whole is portrayed in each tradition. From an article in The Guardian:

"One of the reasons Nietzsche hated Christianity was that it "made something unclean out of sexuality", whereas Islam, many would argue, was sex-positive. One cannot imagine any of the Church fathers writing ecstatically of heavenly sex as al-Suyuti did, with the possible exception of St Augustine before his conversion. But surely to call Islam sex-positive is to insult all Muslim women, for sex is seen entirely from the male point of view; women's sexuality is admitted but seen as something to be feared, repressed, and a work of the devil."

As far as evolutionary explanations of contemporary human behaviors go, while I think they can be helpful in shedding insight in to our development, I worry that people accept them as a limitation of our human capacity. Can't we at least try to overcome our biological need for 'certified virgins' with responsibility, honesty, and, if need be, genetic paternity tests, and reevaluate our morals accordingly (not throw out automatically, just reevaluate)?

On the subject of sexuality, as with most topics, I really have more questions than answers, and some of the answers I think I have will sooner or later be supplanted by more questions. As should be obvious by now, I'm particularly ignorant about the intersection of canonical religious beliefs and sexuality. So echoing Meghan's question, what do liberal Christians think about sexuality--and female sexuality in particular? And if any of you readers took the new Bible and Human Sexuality class in the fall, would you be gracious enough to share some of your academic wisdom?

Finally, to try to briefly engage your question, most recent anonymous, what I meant by "Christian notions of purity" (sorry, I didn't make that very clear at all) was similar to my reference to the loss of virginity: I don't mean it in the way that it may be used in Biblical texts, but in terms of the meaning(s) it has come to have for the general populations. As I see it, these popular meanings, especially as they pertain to sexuality, are influenced by a Christian idea of purity as the absence of sin and/or sinful knowledge (which, as far as I know, is a concept common among most Christian denominations, though, as you said, not the only context in which 'purity' is used). As I understand it, Catholic people tend to believe in original sin, so I guess in that case there can be no true purity for people on earth, but people may be more or less pure depending on the sins they commit in their lifetimes (anyone, please correct/clarify if I'm wrong on this). So basically I was trying to examine what I see as a reflexive *secular* association between purity and innocence/ignorance, an association laden with value judgment.

Why should those of us who don't subscribe to Christianity, or certain specific kinds of Christianity and Christian beliefs, still view sexual self-knowledge as dirty, shameful or sinful? If we don't see masturbation as sinful, then does engaging in it rob us of innocence, except in the sense in which innocence is synonomous with ignorance?

If we have a hard time separating innocence (often valued positively) from ignorance (often valued negatively), what are the reasons for such a difficulty? Why should we tend to automatically value that which keeps us ignorant (purity), unless we link knowledge with sinfulness (another vestige of Christian doctrine)?

These questions aren't rhetorical; I'm still mulling them myself, and would certainly appreciate other people's insight and alternative questions. Last anonymous, what are your thoughts on purity, sexuality, and Christianity?

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous rob said...

hi katie, i'm pretty sure it's well accepted that mary did not remain a virgin and had other children. for example, james was one of jesus' disciples and generally accepted as jesus' brother.

i can understand your reasons for using mary, as you correctly point out our judeo-christian heritage. i would just find it hard to believe that mary herself would spend any of her time thinking of the pros and cons of human sexuality. her life and time were devoted to her son, and she was as good a follower if not better than any of his disciples. if i were to view mary in any context, it has to be of her faith in christ and the lord.

i also have to disagree with nietzsche. christians view sex as one of the most amazing gifts from God. so powerful is it that it can bring a man and women together as one, and make them one. in effect when two people have sex it is viewed as marriage by God.

i ask that you check out this link:

At 12:10 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Hi Rob, sorry it's taken me a while to get back on this. I poked around on the link and found it quite interesting how the Biblical texts can be applied in such a direct manner to the dilemmas people face in their everyday lives. I usually find it troubling when there's such an extreme authority differential between the person disseminating wisdom and the person or people receiving it, but in this case the minister at leat seemed genuinely concerned with supporting and helping the youth coming to him with their questions.

While I see what you mean about sex being a holy event according to Christian texts, and worthy of celebration, I think that what Nietzsche was trying to get at, judging by the context in which he made the comment, was that other faith systems may deem sex holy and/or worthy of esteem and celebration in more contexts than does Christianity. On my reading of the minister's explanations, Christian doctrine only deems sex holy if the people engaging in it do it *properly,* meaning, going through the formality of a recognized social/legal marriage. From the literature you shared:

"[T]he only question a young person needs to ask is "Do I love him or her enough to swear my unconditional love for the rest of my life? If not, then you had better not make love, because "If you touch it, you bought it." On the other hand, if you believe you do have this quality of love, then God would have you inaugurate your marriage with public vows, before you swear that love before him in bed. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God (RSV 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)."

So it seems that it's the legitimate, formalized love-marriage bond associated with sex that makes it so powerful and amazing. Without this legitimacy, sex not only loses its sanctity, it becomes sinful. I think this is what Nietzsche was talking about--not that Christianity leaves no room for sex to be acceptable or even celebrated, but that the narrow confines it establishes for the legitimization of sex effectively treat it as something potentially awful that has to be corralled, contained, and actively made into something positive through the bonds of formalized marriage. The other faiths Nietzsche refers to in contrast to Christianity view sex and pregnancy as beautiful biological life processes whose glory is independently of the marriage institution.

Is this interpretation consistent with what you read in the psc text, and/or what you've learned through other avenues?

Thanks for your understanding that my project is really a comment on Mary as a quasi-secularized symbol, an icon that bears strong meaning for non-Christian people, too, simply because of the historical context in which we live. I'm happy to have provided an opportunity for you and others to consider your own perspectives on Mary's life as well, and I really enjoy discussing and learning from you and everyone. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, and for the information.

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous rob said...

Hi Katie, you mostly understood =). I wouldn't say marriage is corralling and containing sex. But I would say that sex in and of itself isn't something to be celebrated. It's a very powerful gift that used in the "right" way (i.e., in a committed relationship), and can make that relationship even closer. Thanks for taking the time to read the links, that's about as doctrinely correct a view on sex you'll get.


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