Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cultural Cliteracy

It probably comes as no surprise to regular readers here that I took a course in Feminist Jurisprudence when I was in law school and that my interest in the field continues to this day. What I appreciated about the course was that it, like Critical Race Theory and other Critical Legal Studies, was one of the few that questioned longstanding assumptions inherent in our (mostly white) male-created legal system. We also talked about sex a lot. And that wasn't (just) a self-indulgent feature of the course. After all, the law actually has a lot to say about sex.

Accordingly, I recently read "Toward a 'Culturally-Cliterate' Family Law?," in which Professor Susan Frelich Appleton argues that the legal field "remains preoccupied with performances that produce heterosexual men's orgasms while ignoring, marginalizing, or rejecting women's interest in orgasmic pleasure." [All quotations from this paper unless otherwise indicated].

To begin, walking through marriage, child support, and paternity laws, Appleton observes that family law is sex-centric, for instance, whether it is singling out marriage as the preferred site for sexual intimacy or imposing financial duties on people whose sexual activities produce children. Family law treats marriage, she argues, as existing for the purpose of channeling (male) heterosexual sexual desire into a sanitary institution that provides for any children produced.

At the same time, however, family law as a field "has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, with the United States Supreme Court condemning as violations of the Equal Protection Clause a long list of family laws relying on or reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes." Some of these stereotypes include who may receive alimony, who the provider is, who has authority over community property, and who gets to care for children after a parent dies. Whereas many aspects of family law have become gender neutral as traditional gender roles have faded away, marriage remains an institution nested in the idea that it requires both a man and a woman.

Marriage has remained an institution for one man and woman (for the most part) because of " law's almost exclusive concern with penile-vaginal penetration, that is, sexual activity that might have reproductive consequences...." Because of this, the heterosexual male orgasm is necessarily incorporated into family law. "At the same time that family assumes heterosexual males' orgasms, the preoccupation with penile-vaginal penetration- not the usual route to orgasm for women- communicates the irrelevance of female sexual pleasure, or even its pathology." Within marriage, and in government-sponsored marriage-promotion and sex education programs, "females are expected to play the policing or 'gatekeeping' role- a burden that leaves little room to prioritize or indulge in pleasure."

I think Appleton's observation here ties in nicely with yesterday's article regarding the Responsible Procreation argument. The Responsible Procreation argument is a different way of saying that marriage exists to channel male (hetero)sexual desire. Not only does this channeling theory take a dim view of the inherent nature of males, but it casts women in the role of martyr. They are to be stuck, for life, trying to convince "their" males not to have sex with other women. Their pleasure is irrelevant because that isn't the point of marriage. The point of marriage is to reproduce and ensure that men only experience sexual pleasure with their wives. This focus on the male orgasm, Appleton argues, is why the traditional channeling story, existing as it does without explicit attention to female pleasure, is "disingenuous" and/or "incoherent." I think another apt word would be male-centric, but I digress.

"Cultural Cliteracy" is Susan E. Stiritz's definition for "what an adequately educated person should know about the clitoris, which is that it is a culturally despised body part because it is an obdurate reminder of women's independence and power and supports women's liberation." Yet, what if instead of serving the policing role in marriage, women "routinely acquired the knowledge and developed sexual self-efficacy that Stiritz advocates, so that those channeled into marriage would expect, seek, and regularly experience pleasure as part of an ongoing, intimate, and committed relationship." If this is to be the new story of marriage, I would add that heterosexual married women might learn a thing or two from lesbians but oops, I digress again. This culturally-cliterate channeling story would, unlike the current male-centric version, provide an "internal logic" while also "depict[ing] women as subjects, not objects."

Developing this new cultural narrative is complicated, as Appleton sets out, and involves working with and against media portrayals of women and women's sexuality, re-thinking "healthy marriage" and sexual education programs, and modifying the field of family law.

To sum this article up, one of the most important points I took away from this article is that it reinforced a recent realization I have had about this thing called "marriage." Namely, that the marriage that Traditional Marriage Advocates tell us we have in our society is not really about couples or children. It is first and foremost about males. It is about regulating their (supposed) incredibly high sexual drives and requiring women to sacrifice their own pleasure to police these desires.

By removing the heterosexual male's sexual desire from the center of one of society's most important institutions, I am reminded that the struggle for women's liberation and same-sex marriage equality are, perhaps, the same battle. Under the current marriage paradigm, women and same-sex couples are penalized for the heterosexual male's "inherent" need to fuck as many women as he can. The current challenge is to create the audacious social expectation for men, and men alone, to take responsibility for controlling their own sexual urges.

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