Monthly Archives: March 2013

Middlesexed: One Christian’s Incarnational Journey from Fear to Acceptance

When I was in seminary at Regent College, a man named Ron [not his real name] who was both homosexual and married to a woman came to speak to us in a class on Gender and Sexuality. At the time, Leanne Payne, an author who writes about inner healing prayer, predominated my thinking about homosexuality. It was a result of brokenness. It could be, should be, healed. I said this to Ron in a small gathering of students. Ron, never defensive, invited me for coffee in the Regent atrium, where he shared his story. As a Christian, he had decided to try to be celibate, and he had married his wife who was disabled and whom he cared for. But he wanted Christians to understand something important: he didn’t choose homosexuality, any more than any one chooses heterosexuality. It was not something he could be healed of, any more than a heterosexual person could be healed of heterosexuality. He asked me a simple question which at the time dinged off my defenses, but which stayed with me over the years as I reflected on this issue. It was, “What did you think of the slide presentation by Dr. Hui?” Edwin Hui, MD, is a professor who taught on bioethical issues at Regent. He had nothing to say about his views on homosexuality and the Bible. He just showed slides of a variety of chromosomal combinations—way more than I thought possible– which could result in varying sexual orientations. Ding. I saw the slides, heard the question, but they were meaningless due to my armored belief that homosexuality was a result of wounds from childhood.

But I considered my theology at Regent to be incarnational. Meaning, embodied. I needed to know people, to encounter the people I discussed and thought about ethically. Those people would provide the needed lens to read the Bible well. So, I was choosing to live near Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside where my neighbors would teach me good theology by letting me get to know them. One of the people I met was Jan [not her real name], who had had sex change surgery a few years earlier. She had engaged in prostitution in the past and so I wanted to interview her for a paper I was writing on ministry to sex trade workers.  She invited me to her Downtown Eastside apartment to talk.  When I introduced myself, she smiled slyly and said Susan had been her street name. We became friends for a time. She was a warm extrovert who sometimes came off as a kindly uncle type; the deep voice couldn’t be diminished by hormones. She said even though she had to have the surgery to feel comfortable with herself, it wasn’t a perfect choice, not a perfect fit. It was a hard life, too. Jan came to church with me a few times, but wasn’t exactly readily accepted. And the church usually welcomed a variety of people—those with schizophrenia, with disabilities like obesity or brain damage, people with addictions. But sexuality was a different matter. They didn’t reject Jan, but they ignored her.

Small dent, you could say, in my defenses. I was learning through people like Paul and Jan who were living what I was discussing. Would Jan really have chosen to go through all she had? Or, could she have been healed if she had only had properly trained inner healing pray-ers? And, what if she didn’t want healing in the inner healing prayer way? That kind of prayer is intense even for long-time Christians. My usual answers were getting a little fuzzier, like those chromosomes on the slides.

After I graduated from Regent, I read the book, Middlesex, intrigued by the title and subject matter. In that book, I met more people; fictional, yes, but possible still, due to the research behind the book. The main character of the book, Cal, is a hermaphrodite due to a genetic condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.  Cal lives as a girl through her teen years, as the condition brings out feminine traits. Her condition is eventually discovered by the medical establishment, and they attempt to do genital surgery on her which she evades by running away. Cal decides to live as a man in his new life. Meeting Cal brought those chromosomal slides to mind once again. Sexual variety can be a biological reality. I finally got it.

In the first years of a doctoral program in clinical psychology, I eventually learned about the brain’s plasticity in regard to sexuality. Sexuality is inborn; it is also learned and shaped through our experiences. So, I do not reject the idea that a man or woman could receive healing from experiences that shaped sexuality in unwanted ways, whether homosexual or heterosexual. That’s a reality, too.

Speaking of heterosexual, let’s name the elephant in the room. Heterosexual people, heterosexual Christians, many of whom who are vocal about the sinfulness of homosexuality, are only finding new ways to reshape heterosexuality in unhelpful ways.  A thousand Christians were surveyed about pornography use in 2007; half of the men and 20 percent of the women confessed to a pornography addiction. In 2003, 30 percent of 6000 pastors surveyed confessed to having viewed porn in the previous month. And that was ten years ago; wonder what it’s like now?

Yet pornography viewing is no litmus test for ordination or Christian ministry. What people do in front of their own computers is kind of thought to be their own business, just by virtue of the fact that no one asks. Heterosexual sins just seem more “okay”, somehow, even though no one would condone them outright. But the tiny minority of people with other sexual orientations are often looked at as choosing to live in sin and so are inappropriate for ministry. Or are ignored if they show up at church and are obviously sexually different. That’s the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus liked to point out in the gospels.

Back to me. I am now living far from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, ten years hence. I live in a suburb where people tend to all look alike, on the surface anyway, and sexual orientation is not up for discussion. I continue to need to grow further in my incarnational theology by simply knowing people like Paul, Jan and Cal and hearing their stories. Can any of you help me by suggesting books to read or people to encounter?

Don’t Blame Feminist Mamas: The Difference Between Attachment Parenting and Helicopter Parenting

Last year, a study came out saying that moms who parent “intensively” are more depressed and stressed than other moms. In one news report on this study, the author assumes that intensive parenting means both “attachment parenting” and “helicopter parenting.” The headline reads: “Attachment Parenting: It May Cause More Stress, Less Happiness” and the links between paragraphs lead to a quiz called “Are You a Helicopter Parent? Take Our Quiz.”

I think it is time to bust some stereotypes and parse out attachment parenting vs. helicopter parenting. Attachment parents focus on fostering a sense of security in babies and young children, via breast-feeding, child-led weaning, co-sleeping, babywearing, and responding to the midnight cries of children. It turns out that feminist mothers are more likely to adhere to attachment parenting than non-feminists. I don’t know what the connection is, but I do know by experience that if a mom of young kids was educated at Harvard, or has a graduate degree, or reads widely, she is probably also a card-carrying member of La Leche.  Maybe it’s that feminist moms read, and investigate, and don’t accept what we are told about parenting without researching it. Recent studies suggest that our culture’s insistence on letting children cry it out alone in their cribs to get them to sleep are leading to hollow adults who have trouble with empathy. Attachment parenting is a counter-cultural parenting movement, based on sound child development research, that is about raising secure, compassionate, confident kids.

Helicopter parenting, however, is about raising Super Kids who do everything sooner than the neighbor’s kids. It is about making sure your child has fully developed every possible skill or talent they have. It is about over-involvement and micro-control as the children grow older, due to fear and worry over performance. The science is against this one, which you can read about in books like The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting. College-age kids of helicopter parents tend to be more worried and depressed, just like those “intensive” moms.

Now, I suppose that either an attachment mother or a helicopter mother could have beliefs that lead to greater depression and stress (such as “women are better parents than men”; “mothering should be child-centered”; and “children should be considered sacred and are fulfilling to parents”).  In fact, I agree somewhat with the last two items, but not with the first, and that makes the difference in my own mental health. I don’t believe that women are inherently better parents than men. Did you know that feminists tend to be less hostile toward men than non-feminists? That may translate into a more welcoming attitude toward fathers’ involvement, meaning less exhaustion and more happiness for a feminist mom. In my own life, my ideal has always been that my husband would co-parent with me, partly due to my egalitarian beliefs. And, he has. Until my son was almost three, my husband and I switched off child-care and were gone from the home about an equal amount of time. All this time, my son continued to breast-feed and all of us co-slept. There are ways to foster attachment without killing yourself, especially if you don’t assume your husband is incapable of adequate parenting.

Can an attachment parent also be a helicopter parent? Probably not, because the intentions behind the two parenting philosophies are so different. I understand the temptation to fully develop that supple child’s brain while you can. I admit to buying Baby Mozart CDs and reading to our son in the womb. But as an attachment parent, I know that kids are more than their brains, more than their talents, more than their performance. In my own case, our lives are probably under-scheduled. We unschool, and so a lot of my now seven-year old’s learning comes from family outings, conversations and books we read together based on his interests. The foundation of our lives is our relationships with each other. Yet, every one we meet notices the broad range of what our son knows, and we are not trying to make him the smartest kid on the block nor even the smartest version of himself. We want him to find joy in learning and life, in the context of meaningful relationships.

So, that’s the difference between attachment parenting and helicopter parenting. Attachment parents want what is best for their kids’ development, but not so they can be the best. By the way, I think we need to shift our focus from moms to parents, in studies and discussions; dads impact their kids as much as moms do. But seeing attachment parenting as yet one more mistake of the over-involved mom is just based on inaccurate information.

Forever Young: Girls, Ladies and Sexism in the 21st Century

My husband and I like to watch 70s sitcoms—Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Bob Newhart, The Golden Girls. They make us laugh, and the historical references from the 1970s fascinate us. One of the obvious relics on the shows is the fact that the women on the shows are “girls” no matter their age. Well, this would have been a relic in the 1990s. But now it is strangely familiar. For the past decade, women have become girls again—and, even, ladies. She’s a [noun] + girl has become a part of everyday language. There is a series of popular books for women called The Girlfriends Guides, and even a cable show about twenty-something women called Girls. You can find two magazines on the Internet called Girlfriends, and one called Girlfriendz for boomer women. And on in Portland you can join a “Ladies’” book club. While not denoting eternal childhood, “ladies” suggests frailty, otherness, rather than humanness. What is this language trend about? Is it a meaningless cultural shift, like dressing retro or wearing a 50s style apron?

I think some real changes have occurred in how women think about women. In grad school in the early 80s, my husband was told that men should never call women “girls.” But now, women themselves are viewing themselves as opposite to men in every way, including in maturity. In the 21st century, it is women calling each other “girls” more than men using the term girls (though notice strip clubs always advertise Girls ,Girls, Girls, never Women, Women, Women). Popular books that describe men and women as different species have somehow made this language shift seem okay (think Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus). The evangelical Christian subculture loves books on gender that encourage polarity (Wild at Heart, and Captivating); men hunt, women wait at the door in negligees. The toy industry tells our children that boys love violent images like skulls and girls love anything soft and pink. While meta-analyses of gender studies in psychology conclude there is little one can say definitively about someone based only on their sex, popular culture hasn’t heard this yet, and really doesn’t want to.

I note the resistance every time I bring this issue up. Women—not men–get angry at me for it. They want to keep their girlfriends and do girl-things. I think a kind of Girls’ Club has developed around certain stereotyped interests, like French manicures. But I also think that, on the positive side, women value certain qualities about themselves that are stereotypically female. They value their relationship-centeredness and their ability to share with each other on a deeper level. These values have become associated with the term “girlfriend” and so the word itself has become sacred, like our friendships. Can we look at the word “girl” more closely, though, with a little bit of distance?

It seems to me that we women increasingly accept that the idea that the way we look reflects on our worth as women. And we want to look young. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and even Ladies Home Journal both reflect that desire, and reinforce it. Though few would admit it, the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” speaks for many women, feminist or not, in 2013:
When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curls
I float as the clouds on air do
I enjoy being a girl

Pedicure culture is an example. Even fifteen years ago, women didn’t get pedicures regularly. Now it is almost obscene to wear flip flops without shiny toe nails and smoothed heels, as though you just walked off the shelf of the girls’ section of the toy store. Spa culture has spread, as well, as though being pampered is all about primping.

While many women may enjoy nail polish, facials and Brazilian Blow-outs as an art form, or expensive fun, or as something to talk about or do with friends, many men see our values and behavior as an invitation to be viewed as inferior objects of consumption. We are screaming, “Women are just girls. We are inferior to you, and our lives are all about pleasing you with our beauty.” The recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony is an example. The disparaging comments about accomplished women were shocking, but somehow made possible by all the culture’s hyper-focus on women’s bodies, clothes and faces.

Many men may assume all the effort to stay eternally young and girl-like is all about sex—with them. And seeing ourselves as just girls may be affecting our ability to say what we do or do not want when it comes to sex. The cable show “Girls” may be an example of this. Apparently one of the last episodes had a near-rape scene in it. What was willing sex the first time became highly ambivalent sex the next time with a drunk, pushy, inconsiderate jerk. The online discussion about whether or not it was rape is a healthy one, because these scenes likely get played out over and over again in “hook-up culture” where “girls” do not feel empowered to say what they want. Why didn’t the main character, Hannah, say, “See ya!” instead of following the guy’s directions to do what she didn’t want to do? It is always important to consider that she feared for her physical safety, feared that pushy sex would become rape .

Yet , I think that eternal girlhood is one more thing keeping some of us feeling powerless when it comes to a man’s desire for sex. Without thinking about it, Hannah lives the reality of an obedient child. Hannah probably spent hours picking the perfect outfit, polishing her toes, shaving her legs and arm pits (and where did that girl-like cultural expectation come from?), applying make-up and blow-drying her hair for this abusive date. And so somehow it made a little more sense than it might have if she was not trying so hard to please, to go back to this guy’s apartment even though he was drunk and already not-so-nice, and to do exactly what he told her to do.

I think it is time for women to think about what it means to be a “girl” at 25, 35, or 45. Do we really want eternal youth and beauty, including the immaturity, incompetence, obedience and powerlessness associated with childhood? Let’s make a start in changing a sexist culture by refusing to call ourselves, or any other woman, a “girl” or a “girlfriend” or even a “gal.” We can hang out with our friends, or BFFs, and keep the relationships we so highly value. And we can have fun, but forget the Valley Girl, Party Girl, Spa Girl talk. Let’s be the real, all grown-up human beings that we are. Maybe that will help the men around us grow up a little, too.

Are Vacuuming Men Really a Turn-off? A Closer Look at the Study, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” in American Sociological Review, Feb. 2013

At the end of January, many popular news websites were quick to report that men who do “women’s work” get less sex. Titles like“Want to Have More Sex? Men, Stop Helping with the Chores,” “Does Female Housework Make Men Less Sexy?”and“Husbands Who Do ‘Her’ Chores Have Less Sex,” abounded, making it seem like men had better “put down their vacuums and pull out their lawn mowers,” and fast. However, as usual with any scientific study upon which popular articles are based, there is more to look at than a provocative title suggests.

Most of these articles do mention the fact that this study contradicts previous research with opposite outcomes. This is important because the data used in the February 2013 study is 20 years old. The authors of the study in the American Sociological Review acknowledge the importance of the age of the data, but conclude that “given the durability of some features of marriage, including the gendered division of labor” the researchers “suspect our results would still hold despite the time that has passed since the data were collected.” That is a big leap of faith for scientists.

In fact, just one year earlier, reported this: “Men Who Do Housework Have More Sex,” and quoted a 2008 study commissioned by the US Council of Contemporary Families that, in fact, men benefit in several ways, including sexually, from doing traditional household chores like cooking and cleaning. Another article on the same 2008 study reported, “Psychologist Joshua Coleman, a senior Council fellow, said sharing household chores ‘is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction—and sometimes more sex, too’. He said: ‘Wives report greater feelings of sexual interest and affection for husbands who participate in housework.’”

Neil Cheithik conducted a randomized national telephone survey of 288 men for his 2006 book, VoiceMail: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment. He defined housework as “inside and outside responsibilities (not including paid work) that contribute to keeping up the home.” What he found was:  “…the actual frequency of sex tends to be higher when a woman feels that the housework is divided fairly.” His study can’t tell us how women perceive fairness. However, it has been noted in other recent studies that wives spend twice as much time on housework as husbands, on average. In Cheithik’s survey (taken in 2003-2004), housework was the third most contentious issue for married couples. Fairness in housework was under discussion, and when it was worked out, it mattered for a couple’s sex life. This is likely a more true-to-the-times message than “it turns women on when you change the oil but not when you sweep the kitchen.”

Beyond the fact that 20 year old data is likely irrelevant today, it is interesting there is an assumption that it matters whether or not men have sex 1.6 times more often in a month. Okay, maybe it matters to sociologists. But is sex really so important to the average married man that they would pull less of their weight around the house to get—maybe, on average—one and a half more rolls in the hay per month? (I would say something like “love-making sessions” but the approach of the media is to turn even married sex into a commodity). I’d hate to think that about men, but the popular media assumes this is true.

Another important question is the attitudes of the women who were engaging in more sex with the husbands who were doing only more of the traditionally male chores. Were the women more likely to submit to sexual pressure due to beliefs about women’s roles? Were the men pushier due to those same beliefs? The University of Washington researchers wondered about this too, but noticed that the women whose husbands did more traditionally male chores also had higher levels of sexual satisfaction. But did the women’s traditional values include an unquestioned assumption that “satisfying” sex means pleasing their husbands sexually, and rarely saying “No”? It’s quite possible, but the study didn’t ask.

A final question to ask is, does sexual satisfaction equal marital satisfaction for men and women? The study could not answer that question either. But what we do know is, sex sells, and so a study that added little to the public’s understanding of gender relations in 2013, and possibly did some harm, was exploited to its fullest by the popular media.

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