Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reason #5: Beauty, Sex, & Security Complicate Everything

This is going to be another tough one for me. Which is probably why I've procrastinated posting. To start, I feel it might be useful to offer a pretty raw/honest summary of my awkward social history with men.

For most of my life, I have not seen myself as sexually desirable. Sometime around 7th grade, someone once balked at the idea that anyone would ever be attracted to me. Combined with my awkward preteen insecurity and the uncomfortable awareness of what guys were attracted to, that impression of my sexual repulsiveness stuck. It stuck around for a long time. Whether by social design or self-fulfilling prophesies, I proceeded to spend the rest of my high school and college years with gay men and straight guys who just weren't attracted to me. In the 15 years I have been "on the market" (we'll get into why I hate this term later), I have probably been on 15-20 dates. Just for perspective on life at BYU, I had roommates that went on that many dates in a month.

For a long time I mostly ignored the silent rejection of my sexuality (though at times it was not so silent). I enjoyed my friendships with men. I always felt respected, appreciated, and yes even loved - though only in a platonic way. I think that, over time, I kinda got hooked on being seen as a person rather than a woman (and yes I know how messed up that is that I can distinguish that). Because I never felt a desperate need to be someone's girlfriend, I was able to build really great friendships. I enjoyed the feeling of being respected and relied on by my guy friends, even if (or perhaps because) they weren't attracted to me. I did and do feel like I was treated and seen as an equal. If they had a problem, they asked for my insights/opinions. If I had a problem, they didn't patronize me or act like it wasn't a big deal. I was never deemed 'overly emotional' or 'crazy' for being hurt by someone or something. They listened to me, tried to understand me, and debated with me without holding back.

However, despite the potential psychosocial benefits of this asexual status quo, I was frequently frustrated by my own lack of marital opportunities and subsequent abstinence. Toward the end of my college career, I had this really empowering thought that if I wanted to get married, I just had to employ my personal will power in a way that will make men attracted to me. I just needed to make myself more beautiful.

Given the blaring societal roadmap indicating what's "beautiful" and how to hijack men's sexual desires, the formula wasn't hard to figure out. I just needed to lose 30 pounds, wear more flattering clothing and makeup, and use my ability to touch (it's a weird skill, but a skill nonetheless) to elicit a greater sense of mystery and desire. Looking back, my heart aches for the naive Cherie of 2008. I remember how good she felt about living a hyper-disciplined eating and exercise regimen in strict pursuit of her beauty development goals. I remember the rush of control as my body responded to my demands. I remember the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that came as my natural curves took on more svelte dimensions. I remember the power trip of turning heads and being pursued by perfect strangers. I also vividly remember the sense of victory when the man I was head over heels for finally looked at me and said, "Yeah, I want that."

For the six months we dated, I wondered why I felt sick every time he looked at me ever since. I wondered why I never felt safe or at ease with him like I had during the years we were just friends. I remember how disconnected, critical, and numb I became as he apparently became more attached and committed. I still remember a meeting I had with my bishop where he informed me that this man would marry me if I wanted, and my internal response was complete repulsion. At the time, it made no sense to me. I loved and cared deeply about him. I had a lot of respect for who he was and what he wanted. He was a wonderful boyfriend - attentive, sweet, kind, helpful, etc. He was also tall, incredibly attractive, well educated, and bound for an adventurous but secure life as a dentist in the Air Force. I remember being baffled by my own disinterest in committing to such a man. But the feeling of "no, I don't want this" was so strong I couldn't rationalize it away.

Fast forward past the next 8 years of introspection, observation, and numerous failed attempts to combine the safety, respect, and intimacy I found in friendships with a little bit of romance. What have I learned? Well....a LOT. Much of it frustrating. But three themes have perpetually popped up along this journey.

1. Humans desire beauty. They desire to possess it, create it, and be in close proximity to it.
2. Humans desire security. They desire to possess it, create it, and be in close proximity to it.
3. Sex complicates everything

These themes are the backdrop to my 5th and final reason I struggle to identify with modern feminism. I think modern feminism oversimplifies and perpetuates the wrong conversation about equality almost every time the topic turns to sexuality. We obsess about the objectification and subjugation of women and their beauty, but then don't talk about any kind of security except our own. Do I think men objectify women on an alarmingly frequent basis and that this perpetuates a dangerous culture of disrespect, degradation, and misogyny? Yes. Hell yes. Do I think men are the only gender entrenched in habits of objectification, disrespect, and degradation? No, absolutely not. And I think this is the glaring hole in the current gender equality conversation.

I think it's time we called out and took some responsibility for the ways women regularly diminish the divine nature and potential of men. I think we need to call out and own our contribution to vicious cycle that I personally believe is the root of most, if not all, evil. Nobody's hands are clean here. Myself included. I have no intention of separating myself from my gender in this. But the fact that we barely even talk about, let alone own up to, how women demean and diminish men on a daily basis is gross negligence if we are hoping to reduce the frequency at which they demean women. Namely, we need to start having the conversation about how men objectify women in pursuit of beauty and women objectify men in pursuit of security.

To be clear, wanting to observe or be in close proximity to beauty or security is not objectification. But objectification starts the moment we begin to think about how another’s beauty or security could serve us in some way. I know of few women who are more repulsed by male ogling than myself. I frequently have to remind myself that an appreciation for beauty is not, by itself, disrespectful. However, the moment an appreciation for beauty turns into ideations of how that beauty could be used to please or serve the one observing, it's objectification and I feel nothing but rage when seeing this kind of degradation. 

I'm 99% certain this is why Christ said "whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart." He's didn't say, "married men that looketh on a woman." He didn't say, "Hath committed adultery unless he's married to her." And he definitely didn't say, "But it's okay if she's dressed inappropriately." Nope, ANYONE who looks at a woman and sees her as an opportunity for their pleasure rather than a complex and autonomous human being is guilty of degrading the divine. Personally, I think the karma associated with this degradation is perpetual isolation from the very women they crave. Because, ironically, the moment they have subjugated that woman in their mind - they are deemed unsafe (because WE CAN TELL!!) for real intimacy.

To be fair, the combination of desire for beauty, security, and sex makes it REALLY difficult not to objectify others. Since we all (or at least, most) have a sex drive, endorphins, and an imagination, it actually might be nigh unto impossible not to at least temporarily objectify any person you find yourself attracted to. Like hunger begets fantasies about food, you might have a compulsive thought about how good it would feel to hug, kiss, or be touched by someone you're attracted to. You might daydream about all the fun things you would want to do with them and create entire fantasies about how your life would be together. It might feel really good to indulge in those thoughts or to feel such intense desire.

But the kicker there is, all of that is about you. At it's root, those thoughts are about how that person would make YOU feel and how happy YOU would be if they just complied with all your fantasies and made all your dreams come true. The worst part is, in this wonderful world of infatuation where the object of your desire is the puppet of your own mind, you can feel completely enamored with someone without ever wondering who they are, who they want to be, or what is important to them. You don't have to listen to, respect, or understand the other party to get a rush of endorphins every time they give you that "look" or put their arms around you. Thus, many don't. Instead, they float from high to high, wandering at the behest of their own hormones and wondering why the love never lasts.

Many more wonder how to get the 'high' back as they are faced with the vulnerability, conflict, and the difficulty of developing real, lasting human intimacy. The only thing that gives me hope for romance is that many do eventually put in this work. And perhaps the high is necessary for people to feel that the hard work of intimacy is worth the investment. As I said, it may be nigh unto impossible for men and women not to objectify one another at the outset of attraction. Without more information about their person or how life would be with them, our minds like to fill in the blanks. Specifically, our minds like to fill in the blanks in ways that satisfy our needs and desires, rather then letting the other party do that for themselves.

To illustrate, I want you to read the next lines while the contemplating how much the speaker is considering the needs or personhood of those they are describing (these are all real statements).

"I want a hot wife and I'm not ashamed to say it."

"Yeah, he's going to Harvard, so...score!"

"She's perfect for me - attractive, educated, talented, sweet, and not too opinionated."

"He's got big broad shoulders and big blue eyes, what else do I need?"

"Why would I settle for a 7 if I could get a 9?"

"I'm just looking for someone that wants to take care of me."

"I just want someone that makes me feel like I can't live without them."

In the 15 years I’ve been informally employed as "love life consultant" to countless singles, I have heard hundreds of these kinds of statements. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize just how effectively these kinds of statements reduce a living, breathing human being into an object with features meant to satisfy the needs/desires of another.

However ubiquitous and culturally acceptable it may be, I think this manner of judging others according to the service they may render you is counterproductive and may be morally wrong. Once I saw how degrading this kind of self-centered measurement of relational worth was, I couldn't unsee it. It made me physically nauseous and drove me out of attending singles wards. When confronted with it, I began to consider my closest and most intimate friendships (with both men and women) and how I would NEVER try to assess their worth to me based on how well they could improve my circumstances or gratify certain appetites. Never in my life would I think, "Well, Ashley is fantastic, but I’m looking for a best friend that cooks better." No! Absolutely not! And if I ever did that, I hope Ashley would have the self-respect to say, "Hey, I don't think my personhood is being respected or valued here," and walk away IMMEDIATELY.

Fundamentally, I still think most men and women want the same things. They want to love and feel loved. They want to feel important, safe, and at ease with their partners. They want to trust that their partners are loyal and honest with them. They want to feel pleasure, connection, and purpose in that unity. In order to achieve this though, I think it is imperative that BOTH men and women stop looking at one another as a means of achieving their own satisfaction. It is not men’s job to provide security any more than it’s a woman’s job to be beautiful. We are not here to be employed as tools in one another’s fantasies or life plans. We are divine children of God who need to learn how to love one another and become one in purpose. Sex may distract or perhaps complicate this process by initially making it more difficult to fully see one another. It may also be the only reason we continue to bother with one another and try to make it work. 

I don’t have any real solution to this. I think as long as sex is for sale, men will be buying beauty and women will be buying security. It’s messy, immoral, and disappointing in many ways. But I hope that as this conversation shifts, people will no longer assume a woman’s worth is measured in beauty and a man’s worth is measured in income or influence. I hope this conversation will bring attention to the worth of souls and how each of us is a divine son or daughter of God with our own individual power, purpose, and potential to fulfill. Perhaps then we can see one another as God sees us and start to build limitless kingdoms of connection, love, and intimacy. Perhaps then we can start to see how money, titles, prestige, beauty, and fame really are hollow measures of a human and poorer measures gender equality. Perhaps we can ditch the Us vs Them of it all and see one another as necessary and equal partners in the work of building those kingdoms.  Perhaps we can let go of the push for equivalence and instead find ways of using our authentic differences to augment one another in in that partnership. These are my hopes for feminism (or, respectism if I ever get my way), but more importantly, these are my hopes for humanity. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reason #4: Personal Power is the Foundation of Equality

Over the years, several people have asked me why I keep this blog.  A lot of it is just about keeping a history of my thoughts and learning.  Some of it is about processing and understanding feelings I find difficult to articulate.  But the sole reason I make it public is that it forces me to be actively accountable for the thoughts and feelings I let shape my world.  Writing them down for all to see reminds me to think/feel them through, study, and question every premise they are built upon.  While I’m still a hypocrite (a.k.a. human) who will probably continue to think one way and live another, I actively try to mitigate that tendency.  I want those who know me to trust that my opinions are formed on purpose and after some pause.  I want them to know that I subject my own thoughts to the same rigor I all too frequently ask of others.

That being said, I don't always love sharing these thoughts.  It brings with it a degree of vulnerability and opens me up to criticism, judgment, and even hatred.  It can and has cost me friends, affection, and respect. I can hope for patience, understanding, and acceptance from others, but we are human, and those things are not always so easily given.  The reason I'm telling you this is that this post, in particular, has become one of the most difficult I've ever written.  It's full of contradictions, hard realities, and perceptions that may not make sense to anybody but me.  This post is about something that I am fascinated by, drawn to, terrified of, and somewhat disgusted by.  
This post is about power.  

Perhaps ironically, I feel both overwhelmed and terrified of sharing some of the perspectives I hold on the subject of power.  I know it is an intimate and difficult topic for many, perhaps especially for women.  For over a year, I have agonized on how to be both empathetic to the struggles of those who feel powerless and assertive about the source and stalk of personal empowerment.  Something I have long considered is that feminism itself is a movement borne out of the desire to help women be and feel more powerful. Feminism wants to enable women to say no, act independently in society, make their own choices and priorities, and nurture a personal identity free from the oppressive and arbitrary “feminine ideal.” I think that’s great, and for the record, I appreciate and admire many of the women who have challenged the misogynistic and unjust laws and customs of their day.  Much of my life has been blessed by their efforts.

 I also acknowledge that the work of gender equality has a long way to go and that there are plenty more unjust and demoralizing laws and customs that systematically disempower women today.  The challenge I see, and the root of my problem with feminism, is that I think much of the focus, name, and tone of modern feminism seems to be subtly counterproductive to the quest for gender equality.  The blame, shame, and judgment hurdled at men (and women) who question feminist dogmas create a divisiveness that ensures more competition than cooperation. That competition generates battles for power that requires there to be winners and losers. Since power battles always offer an unfair advantage to the party currently wielding more power, the odds are perpetually against women. 

Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as women are battling men for power, we are going to lose. As a woman, that’s morally infuriating.  It fires up my indignation and nurtures feelings of resentment toward men and all of society.  It makes me hypersensitive to behaviors that I deem unjust and causes me to assign malicious intent to anybody who isn’t actively supporting me in my fight for what’s right.

Unfortunately, none of that is helpful.

My resentment does not fix anything.  In fact, it is just distracting. My wise mother has a saying that “Resentment is the anger of the powerless.”  While I know she doesn’t intend it as a cause-and-effect statement, I think it very much is one.  I think when we nurture feelings of resentment, we allow our anger to disempower us. It blinds us from objectively assessing our options and diligently, though perhaps indirectly, navigating toward our personal goals and desires.  

As one who easily falls into feelings of resentment and indignation, I hate this reality.  Especially when injustice occurs, I feel the rage of resentment and passion for justice so strongly it makes me FEEL powerful. In a fit of indignation, I relish in thoughts of vengeance and moral superiority, to the point where it numbs the hurt I felt in the first place. In combination, that feeling of power, superiority, and disconnection from pain is incredibly intoxicating.

However, as this last election cycle has reminded me, the intoxication of indignation may make us feel powerful, even righteous, but it doesn’t get us what we want.  This holds true not only for politics but for social justice endeavors as well.  As long as we are harboring or perpetuating feelings of resentment and anger, we will never realize the kind of gender equality (or social equality) we desire. We may feel powerful in our righteous anger, but that same anger will inhibit us from actualizing the ideals we hold.  Thus, I think it important to distinguish between “feeling powerful” and real personal power.  

Because we are finite, mortal, and sentient beings, the feeling of power is a fickle illusion. It is a perception that we are able to control our circumstances, make things happen, or coerce others into compliance. But if life has managed to teach me one thing, it’s that I have very little control over my circumstances and no control over other human beings.  I do, however, have a great deal of control over my perceptions, beliefs, and choices.  It may take constant effort and learning, but I get to decide how I think, feel, and act. I determine my values, goals, and priorities. I define what things like love, friendship, education, service, respect, and spirituality mean in my life. And while others may influence or add color those perceptions, I am the final authority on what my internal world looks like, as well as what it doesn’t.    

That is what makes me powerful. That is the only thing I can truly control. In my theology, that agency (the ability to choose our perceptions, beliefs, and actions) is the feature that enables us to become like God. It is a sacred and powerful thing and needs to be reverenced, cherished, and utilized with wisdom and purpose. I believe very strongly that our agency is the only power we personally wield in life. All other types of power are a product of influence, which requires and depends upon the uncontrollable agency and vulnerability of others.  This makes other forms of power capricious and fleeting--not inherently bad, but ultimately uncontrollable.     

Thus, my #4 issue with feminism is how often the prescribed methods of empowering women is in tackling systemic disadvantages with indignation rather than explicitly identifying and emphasizing the importance of making choices that strengthen our own internal force. As women, we individually need to own, claim, and develop our own personal power if we ever hope to achieve gender equality. All the equal-pay policies and family-friendly scheduling in the world is not going to generate gender equality if women do not believe they are inherently and eternally powerful individuals, worthy of the utmost respect and love. This is because no matter how economically or socially powerful we become, there is still a need for us to feel individually powerful in order to avoid subjugation in other ways.