Saturday, February 12, 2011

Celebrating heterosexuality, ignoring women

It is an odd thing, misogyny that celebrates heterosexuality. Particularly if it privileges heterosexuality. (By ‘privileging’ I mean making it normative such that same-sex attraction is viewed as some form of perversion or deviation from proper human sexuality.) On one hand, one celebrates sex and erotic love between men and women as the proper path of sex and love, even as being sex and love at its most uplifting and spiritual. On the other hand, the status of women is something to, at best, ignore and, at worst, denigrate. It celebrates the complementary of sex with, and love for, the opposite sex yet conceives that complementarity as one of superior and inferior. Not only is heterosexuality normative, so is masculinity.

Two pieces on pederasty in the Islamic world by the Asian Times columnist Spengler managed to display the weirdness that is heterosexuality-privileging misogyny quite strongly. Not that he ever explicitly says women are inferior and masculinity is normative: his is the misogyny of silence, not of denigration, but silence in the face of profound subordination and denigration.
So a silence that is very striking.

The two pieces are a systematic attack on same-sex attraction to younger males – i.e. pederasty – in the Islamic world. Both are marked by a consistent refusal to make pertinent distinctions. Pederasty can involve paedophilia (sexual interest and involvement with pre-pubescent child: a boy, in this case), but need not. It can be ephebophiliac, or even involve someone in their early 20s. A ‘beardless boy’ is not necessarily pre-pubescent.

So, there is a profound intellectual dishonesty at the core of both pieces.

Also, a fair bit of psychological ignorance. In his first piece, Spengler tells us that:
As the psychiatrists explain, pederasty is an expression of narcissism, the love of an idealized youthful self-image.
That is wrong about both paedophilia and narcissism. First, being attracted to youth is hardly a homosexual peculiarity: ads in magazines and elsewhere proclaim the pervasively attractive power of youth.

Second, paedophilia is a typically a failure of emotional-sexual development, often the result of childhood abuse. Sexual interest is “frozen” at an earlier period in life based on a deep confusion of childhood and adult roles due to early breaches in basic boundaries. Paedophiles’ sexual interest in children often involves attraction to both boys and girls: paedophilia is a sexual condition that is often not interested in differentiating its sexual fixations by gender. Whether one’s adult sexual interest is opposite sex or same sex has no bearing on the predilection to paedophilia: indeed, heterosexual male paedophiles tend to be drawn to younger boys, since they do not have the masculine features they are not attracted to.

Third, narcissism is not a self-idealisation in the “fall in love with one’s own image” sense, it is a form of profound selfishness that turns one’s convenience into one’s reality principle. Indeed, at the core of narcissism is often a weak sense of self that ultimately vicious ego-defences are constructed to shield: the self-idealisation is a defense mechanism, one that is the more pathological the more intensely it is adhered to.

Being narcissistic can make paedophilia easier, but it makes any personality disorder “easier”. It is a feature of many personality disorders, but not a defining one of paedophilia. Most narcissists are not paedophiles. I doubt that most paedophiles are narcissists, though I would expect some narcissistic traits to be common among paedophiles, since a weak and damaged sense of self is at the core of both conditions. Either way, paedophilia is neither defined by narcissism nor caused by it.

It is, however, true, as Spengler sets out, that much Sufi mysticism and Islamic poetry was fixated on male beauty. The question is, why?

Singular mysticism
In the first of his two essays, Spengler blames it on the dynamics of Sufi mysticism:
Sufism seeks one-ness with the universe through spiritual exercises that lead individual consciousness to dissolve into the cosmos. But nothing is more narcissistic than the contemplation of the cosmos, for if we become one with the cosmos, what we love in the cosmos is simply an idealized image of ourselves.
And here was me thinking mysticism was about the unification and loss of self.
But no, Spengler assures us:
Mysticism of this genre provides a pretext to worship one’s self in the masquerade of the universe.
The problem being, in Spengler’s analysis, that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament reveals himself in his acts, but the God of the Qur’an is utterly Not a Person:
There is no Other in Sufism, only your own ego grinning back from the universe. To embrace the cosmos implies the destruction of individuality. … To Christians and Jews, God reveals himself as a personality, and through acts of love – the Exodus and the Resurrection. There is no such event in Islam. Allah does not reveals himself, that is, descend to earth; instead, he sends down from heaven his instruction manual, namely the Koran. Allah remains unknown, and ultimately indistinguishable from the nature in which he is embedded. Confronted by this absolutely transcendental entity the individual human personality shrivels into insignificance.
Historian of medieval philosophy Etienne Gilson made the point that that the God of the Jews and Christians was a Person was a profound shift from classical Greek philosophy. Spengler is claiming that Islam – at least in its mystical manifestations – negates the Personhood of God.

The Greeks, of course, famously celebrated pederasty and did so without the mystical underpinnings of Sufism. So, perhaps mysticism does not explain all that much. Indeed, perhaps the mysticism Spengler points to is a product of social patterns rather than a basic cause of them.

Anyway, Spengler gets around to celebrating heterosexuality:
Men and women are so different that the experience of heterosexual love is analogous to the spiritual encounter with the divine Other. Love is as strong as death, says the Song of Songs
Spengler does note the existence of Greek pederasty:
The Greeks of the 6th century BC preferred young boys, procreating out of patriotic habit while their women closed their eyes and thought of Athens. Adoration of youth is a very different way to capture from love a sense of immortality. In Greek legend the gods turned Narcissus into a flower to punish his pride in refusing male suitors. Pederasty thus was present at the origin of the concept of narcissism.
Very Platonic of Spengler, privileging a concept (indeed, the origins of a term) over the psychological reality.

Noting that the medieval Persians were even more effusive on pederasty than the classical Greeks, Spengler points out that Hebrew literature lacks celebration of same-sex love until the late C20th while Classical Persian and Arab literature is full of it. Considering the relative size and selection process differences between a minority and two majority cultures would muddy this confident clarity in distinction, but it is true there is much effusing over male beauty and desirability in Classical Persian and Arab literature. One also notes that those cultures lacked equivalents of the hetaira of classical Greece. Or artistic representations of female beauty of anything like the prominence of statues and other representations of Greek goddesses.

Spengler then warns that:
But the experience of divine love reflected in the love of men and women and their children is the foundation of society, and gay marriage would have dreadful consequences.
Really: a careful study of the many human societies that had various forms of same-sex marriage (which clearly no society under Sharia did) demonstrates this, does it?
Finally, he concludes that:
pederasty has become a plague in parts of the West, and widespread abuse of children has occasioned a crisis in the Catholic Church. It is hard to avoid the impression that sexual misbehavior is associated with a retreat from faith in a personal God, namely the Jesus who lived on earth and was crucified and was resurrected, in favor of a mushy and unspecific spirituality – something like Sufism, in fact. Perhaps the same link between spiritual and sexual narcissism is at work in the West.
Really? The crisis in the Catholic Church is due to a lack of belief in a personal God? Really? It is not because of changing opportunity costs in the centuries-old practice of steering same-sex attracted boys into the Church, the wider role of the priesthood as a refuge from conflicted or problematic sexuality and the commitment of a celibate hierarchy to preserve the authority of the priesthood above all else?

The absence of women
So, what is missing from Spengler’s celebration of heterosexuality? Women: specifically the role and status of women in the societies Spengler is critiquing. He is so concerned with whether men are having complementary sex with difference, or are “narcissistically” focusing on sameness, that the question of the role and status of women in these societies is not mentioned in the essay. At all. But, surely, it has some importance?

In fact, it is central.

In what circumstances are homosexual acts most common? In prison. Why? Because there are no women inmates in male prisons, nor male inmates in female prisons. If you do not see or interact with women, then even men who are otherwise heterosexual will begin to focus on their own sex. If you have a whole society like that, such as Saudi Arabia, you end up with a Kingdom in the Closet. What, in the West, we would call prison sex becomes a much wider social pattern.

See how different things look if you just start asking: where are the women? What is their status?
Questions of status, gender and sexuality are deeply intertwined. If sex is properly between unequals, then slaves, “beardless boys” and women all become acceptable partners for dominant males. If women are socially closeted, hidden by obscuring clothing and denied education opportunities, then male beauty becomes the only living and (in the absence of significant visual representations) accessible beauty to celebrate. Medieval Islam and Classical Athens had similar celebrations of pederasty because they had similar social patterns. This turned out to be much more important than the fact that one was monotheist – and officially decried same-sex activity as a capital crime – and the other was polytheist, and did not. The difference monotheism made was medieval Islam was, for religious reasons, far more starved of representations or public manifestations of female beauty than classical Greece: which is to say, it made the public absence of the female more thorough.

The interconnections of status, gender and sexuality is why, in the West, homosexual liberation has marched behind women’s liberation. It is a nice historical resonance, that The Subjection of Women was published in the same year that the term ‘homosexual’ was coined. For the more sex is properly between equals, as the status of women increases, then the more adult male homosexuality conforms to the normative sexual pattern of sex properly being between equals, rather than subverting it. As, if sex is properly between unequals, a man of the dominant group providing sexual pleasure to another man is subverting the status of his masculinity.

Monotheism’s misogyny problem
That loss of status and rights by women due to the Christianisation of Roman law mirrored the loss of status and rights by women due to the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon, and then common, law provides even more problems for Spengler’s analysis. The pattern in both legal realms was the same. First, women lost control of their bodies, with the strictures against abortion and contraception and the notion that a wife had, in consenting to the marriage, permanently consented to sex with her husband. Then, women lost the right to exit a marriage, tending to trap them within the power of a husband who was typically bigger, stronger and had more access to formal power than they. Finally, women – not trusted to control their bodies, not trusted to judge their marriage – lost control over property within the marriage, except as the agent of their husband, with the subordination tending to get worse over time. Largely due to the Christianisation of law, woman in C8th Anglo-Saxon England had more legal rights and social opportunities than a woman in C18th England.

In both the Roman and common law legal realms, the process of women losing rights and status was clearly driven by the sex-and-gender logic of monotheism in general, and Christianity specifically. Just as the increase in the legal rights and status of women in more recent times has flowed from the de-Christianisation of law. The process unravelled in reverse order. First, married women had property rights, previously lost, restored to them. Then, they gained legal right to exit a marriage (which lowered the rates of marital homicides and of domestic abuse). Finally, they regained control of their bodies.

As Skepticlawyer has noted to me, conservative Catholics and other Christians clearly find it deeply frustrating that arguments over abortion, contraception, homosexuality and so on that they thought had been definitively won in the C4th, C5th, C11th or whatever century have since been re-opened, even reversed. The most important single reason why that is so is that women have regained (or more than regained) status and rights previously taken from them by the process of Christianisation of law.

So, it is not that Christianity-as-a-historical reality has operated in a different direction than Islam regarding the status of women, it is that it did not take the logic of the denigration of women as far. Probably in large part due to interactions between geography and culture – if you draw a line from Trieste to St Petersburg, north and west of that line, marriages tended to be later and children fewer (i.e. the status of women tended to be higher): south and east of that line, the reverse tended to be true.

About those Pashtuns
In his more recent piece, on homosexuality among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, Spengler manages some glimmerings that paying attention to the situation of women may be appropriate. Though it only turns up in a quoted comment by a researcher:
The trouble, the researchers surmise, is “Pashtun society’s extremely limited access to women,” citing Los Angeles Times interview with a young Pashtun identified as Daud. He only has sex with men, explaining: “I like boys, but I like girls better. It’s just that we can’t see the women to see if they are beautiful. But we can see the boys, and so we can tell which of them is beautiful.”
In other words, a society with a pattern of prison sex.

Why is there such limited access to women? Because Islam puts women in second-class status (with lower legal status and their physical appearance being far more controlled); because tribal honour systems say women can only lose honour, they cannot gain it; because women are ritually unclean. That Sharia discounts the legal status of women, even in giving evidence, and does so particularly severely in rape cases, leads to the development of rape cultures, since it is so hard for women to legally defend themselves and, even if they legally win, they lose due to their loss of “honour”. From this comes the “need” to control the entry of women into public space or male company: God’s logic as a very misogynist logic.

As Spengler quotes the report on Pashtun sexuality:
“Loving a man would therefore be unacceptable and a major sin within this cultural interpretation of Islam, but using another man for sexual gratification would be regarded as a foible – undesirable but far preferable to sex with a ineligible woman, which in the context of Pashtun honor, would likely result in issues of revenge and honor killings.”
In other words, the fundamental problem is a profound and systematic misogyny. But that is not what Spengler sees.

What he wants to opine about is not the subordination, even denigration, of women, but patterns of Sufi mysticism:
The team’s results are striking, but they place too much emphasis on the weirdness of Pashtun tradition and give too little attention to the broader role of homosexuality in Islamic (and especially Sufi) culture. What scholars now consider the Golden Age of Islamic love poetry, the Persian high middle ages, made homosexual pederasty the normative mode of love.
Well, yes, but when would they get to see or contemplate female beauty? If the answer is “nowhere”, why would not the artists and mystics respond like the Pashtun men (or, indeed, Saudi men) and focus on what they could have access to?

Prison sex accompanied by prison mysticism, each reinforcing the other.

It is all very well to suggest that life imitates art, but cannot art (even mystical art) reflect patterns of life?

Spengler does not want, however, to talk about women. He wants to talk about men being good heterosexuals, or not, depending on getting their religious perspective correct, concluding that:
All forms of contemplative mysticism involve the danger that the object of adoration into which one dissolves might turn out to be one’s self. It sounds well and good to seek God in the all, that is, no place in particular. The trouble is that if one tries to dissolve one’s self into the all, one’s self becomes part of the all. The lover cannot distinguish himself from the all. The self and the all are the same, and one loves one’s self. There is no other in Sufism, only your own ego staring back in the carnival mirror of mysticism. The adept does not worship a God who is wholly other – YHWH of the Hebrew Bible or Jesus of the Gospels – but a younger and prettier version of himself. In that respect, pedophilia in Afghanistan may have a distinctly religious motivation.
I have a different theory: prison sex encourages prison mysticism (and vice versa). The problem is not the sex causing the mysticism, nor mysticism encouraging the sex, it is the monstrous structures of misogyny that the whole thing, the whole social prison, is built on.

General George S. Patton (who was not without his own, if very heterosexual, sexual peccadilloes) spotted the problem:
To me it seems certain that the fatalistic teachings of Mohammed and the utter degradation of women is the outstanding cause for the arrested development of the Arab. ... Here, I think, is a text for some eloquent sermon on the virtues of Christianity.
Misogyny that privileges heterosexuality is a very strange thing. It stops you seeing the bleeding obvious. Because, to the heterosexuality-privileging misogynist, women are either invisible – apart from their role as the proper object of male desire – or their social subordination is proper.
But, if you are as clever as Spengler (and he is a very clever and often perceptive), you can invent wonderful, consoling theories that hide you own blindness from yourself. (That, by the way, is a fundamental pattern of narcissism.)

I am not heterosexual, but I apparently pay more attention to, and have more concern for, women than Spengler does. Heterosexuality-privileging misogyny is a very strange thing indeed.

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