Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: Linking Sexuality & Gender

[Tracy J. Trothen. Linking Sexuality & Gender: Naming Violence against Women in The United Church of Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2003.]

This is the most directly useful book I have yet read in my current pursuit of material related to feminist theology (engaged from my own particular non-Christian place) in the service my social movement history book project's current chapter, which focuses on an interview with a woman who was central to bringing feminism to the United Church of Canada.

Linking Sexuality & Gender intends to begin the process of unearthing the history of the United Church of Canada's treatment of the two issues named. In particular, this volume is interested in understanding the dynamics of these two with reference to how they shaped the Church's ability to respond prophetically to violence against women. The hope is, I think, that this understanding will help the Church, and feminists and their allies within it, to be a more effective voice for justice in the future.

The book uses two main primary sources in trying to realize this project. The first is the records of the highest decision-making body of the United Church since its founding in 1925. Trothen is quite explicit about the limitations of this as a primary historical source, since it is a record of the deliberations of those with power within the institution, and she strongly recommends pursuing a history-from-below of the Church as a next step. The second main source was the archival and publication records of three Church initiatives from the late 1970s and early 1980s, two of which focused on issues of sexuality and one of which was commissioned to look at issues of gender oppression.

As I said, this book is tremendously useful to me as a research tool. My interview participant was centrally involved in the anti-sexist intiative that was used as a case study and the history of that initiative presented by Trothen will be an important source, as well as some of her more general history of gender in the context of the United Church. As well, the picture of the political environment of the Church in that era will be quite useful. I think I will still need to consult some primary documents, but fewer than I had feared. I also think this book will be a useful tool in ongoing efforts by some of its clergy and members to transform the United Church of Canada into a more effective model of and social goad for justice. Regardless of the various supportively critical political observations I am about to make, it says things that are vitally important and that need to be heard.

I found this book to be a relatively difficult one for me to read, considering that it is quite short and written in a relatively accessible (though conventionally academic) way. But then, I always find it more work to read a text which is simultaneously one that has things to tell me -- things that I know on a certain level but still on another level rebel against and deny and actively forget and need to be told again and again -- while also being one that I have political critiques of that are, I think, important and valid.

One way to generalize some of my political concerns with the book is to say that they are not so much about where the book goes as about where it doesn't go -- its inquiry goes here and not there, in this way and not that, in ways that are sufficiently unmarked so as to appear natural. Part of this, undoubtedly, is because it is firmly within a particular feminist lineage. I can only guess, but I think these particular boundaries have been shaped by factors such as institutional location and orientation towards interfeminist dialogues about sexuality and about difference.

One product of this, for instance, is evident in the book's critiques of the two reports focused on sexuality. On the one hand, it is very important critique: it names the fact that the reports on sexuality mostly (though not uniformly) adopted an uncritical liberalism as their basis and they (for the most part) failed to adequately deal with sexuality as a site and tool for both the oppression and liberation of women. However, the specific choices made in doing this in the book resulted in an analysis that, probably unintentionally and certainly only in places, is relatively easily appropriable by conservative voices.

For example, Trothen points out that one of the United Church sexuality reports strongly supports sexual fantasy as healthy and natural, with no caveats or provisos. She counters with the reasonable observation that "the influence of our sexist culture needs to be taken into account when evaluating fantasy for ethical merit...we are a relational people and affect those with whom we are in relation. Even if objectification does not occur, fantasies can affect others negatively. We need to be aware of this possibility and instead of simply accepting sexual fantasy as a good, also be critically self-aware." Fair enough. However, leaving it at that -- saying 'it can be bad too' without exploring the issue -- leaves unspecified how to take up this insight, which by default invites it to be taken up in the context of dominant discourses and relations which use moral 'shoulding' around sexuality as a tool over women, over queers, over other Others. Instead of stopping the feminist critique of liberalism at a point easily picked up by conservatism, why not take it farther? Why not talk about the ambiguities and multiple ways that sexual fantasy, including conventionally shocking examples thereof, can function in the context of multiple oppressions and resistances? There were numerous other issues of this general form in the book.

Another curious-to-me pattern of speech and silence was around how marriage was discussed. The one area where the book was most consistent in moving from description in its case studies to critical judgment was, not surprisingly, in areas directly related to its understanding of violence against women. In light of that, it traced with approval the increasingly critical understanding of the family within the United Church, from something that was (almost) always and (almost) only good to something that could be a site of oppression and pain that must be evaluated based on the quality of the relations that constitute it. Yet in spite of the book's willingness to use feminist analysis to name certain conventions or practices as oppressive because they contribute to violence against women, there was no real discussion of the fact that there is substantial feminist argument that it is not the details of individual marriages but marriage as a social institution that contributes to conditions that foster violence against women. Perhaps this choice by the author is related to tactical considerations of palatability for United Church members? I don't know.

(I found this particularly interesting when juxtaposed with her discussion of the ways in which the case studies handled the issue of monogamy. One of the reports on sexuality suggested that 'faithfulness' did not have to include 'genital exculsivity', and was subjected to heated abuse by many from within and without the United Church for this position, among a handful of others. The subsequent report on sexuality dropped this as a possibly ethical way to do relationships. In discussing this issue, Trothen is, it seems to me, even more careful than in many other instances about not expressing a political judgment, and rather largely sticks to description. Yet it is politically curious to me that no reference was made to feminist theorizing about how ethical nonmonogamy as one possible, permissable relationship practice can be a way for some women to realize the sort of empowerment-in-community that is counter to situations which foster violence against them. Again, why just counter the liberal suggestion with the feminist observation that it isn't that simple, which seems to sanction the Church's decision not to consider it as an option, rather than go further with a feminist analysis of how it isn't that simple but for some people in some contexts it can be important and useful?)

Perhaps the most important political concern I had with the book is how it dealt with the intersection of gender oppression with the myriad of other oppressions (and resistances) which organize our society. The text certainly talked about how important it is to understand such intersections, but then, as far as I can tell, did very little with that insight. There are lots of ways in which an analysis of violence against women might be transformed by an openness to insight into the ways in which gender oppression and other sorts of oppression relate (see for instance this, this, and the relevant essay in this). One particularly striking way in which this lack of interest in linkages among oppressions manifested was around queerness. The two reports on sexuality were also attacked viciously inside and outside the church because they talked in relatively supportive ways about homosexuality, and in a way that was less visible to outsiders the anti-sexist taskforce was also staunchly supportive of justice for lesbian women and gay men. Since the three case studies dealt with the issue, would that not be a perfect excuse to introduce some of the insights that feminists, particularly lesbian feminists, have made on the relationship between heterosexism and violence against women, and how the discussions of homosexuality in church documents and processes have paved the way to seeing or obscuring those connections?

There are, as is almost always true of political criticisms of books, ways in which a lot of what I have said is a bit unfair. This was a project with specific goals and clear boundaries, and in staying within those it made an extremely useful contribution both to my own work and to the evolution of struggles for justice and liberation within the United Church of Canada. I admit there is an element of the critical things that I've said that are about me -- my favoured political lineages, my pet peeves, my personal life -- and who am I to push that into a consideration of violence against women. Fair enough, especially in the context of a document that has probably at least in part been shaped so as to make it a practically useful tool in institutional change efforts. Yet the best among the works of liberatory, mostly feminist, theology that I have read in the last couple of months reaffirm for me the importance of striving to speak 'prophetically' about one's visions of social transformation and transcendence, and it is in that spirit that I offer my opinions here.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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