Monday, January 27, 2014

What a difference two extra words make

Governor Huckabee of Arkansas, speaking at the Republican National Committee's national convention, ignited an instant media and public controversy with the following comments:
If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them for a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government
Let's run that again with two words cut out:
If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them for a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their reproductive system without the help of government
The second version is a condemnation of socialising medicine. Slightly crassly worded perhaps, but otherwise unexceptional. The claim being that women of America can cope with paying for their own contraception. 

Put "their libido" back in and whole texture of the remark changes. Using contraception = slut becomes the invoked subtext. Now, whether it is read as a failure of media competence or possibly a sly way of playing to a specific audience with an eye to a future media career, the remark and the response points to the God's Police or Damned Whore dichotomy that has been such a perennial feature of monotheism in particular and patriarchal systems in general. 

Until the process of de-Chritianisation of law began in the C19th, the standard Christian teaching of no contraception, no abortion, no divorce and no rape within marriage almost entirely stripped women of control over their fertility. The only legitimate act of consent a women had to be actively sexual, or over her fertility, was to marry. 

Even without the whole package (Islam permitted divorce, Rabbinical courts came to recognise rape within marriage), in patriarchal system, policing a woman's sexuality and policing her fertility went hand-in-hand. With older female relatives being particularly involved in said policing. In particular, protecting a son's lineage and reputation made mothers-in-law policers of potential and actual daughters-in-law. Thereby being God's Police so that no Damned Whore sullied the family's lineage or reputation.

(Dis)honour killings come straight out of this concern for family reputation and lineage based on the underlying principle that, as Salzman puts it, women could never add to the honour of the family, they can only detract from it. 

Technology has changed these dynamics in all sorts of ways. (Though obviously less so in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East.) Women have the means to control their own fertility, are independent income-earners and property-owners. Technology is constantly shifting the control of fertility to being more and more independent of sexuality. 

Teachings based on much earlier social dynamics have been having trouble coping with these shifts. Monotheism in particular is inherently inclined to strong gender and sex taboos. Whether Gov. Huckabee was just reflecting such taboos or pandering to them, it is a reminder of the intersection between attitudes to sexuality and stripping women of control over their fertility -- of the way policing sexuality has been both a means of stripping women of control over their fertility and providing cover for doing so.

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