January 04, 2005

Alive and Kicking

Lynn Sanders: January 4, 2005

Left-liberal defenders of abortion rights should let "choice" go.

We should be talking instead about the contest between the life and bodily integrity of the mother on the one hand, and, on the other, the life and body that requires her pregnancy for its own life. We should revisit the argument that abortion is sometimes a form of self-defense.

One of the best things, I think, about a political debate about abortion as self-defense is that it might puncture the disingenuity that now characterizes the right as well as the left on this issue. The problem with the left is all too well known: today defenders of abortion rights treat abortion as if it didn't involve blood and gore. (That's part of the reason why simply referring to the facts of procedures like D & X have been so politically successful for the right.) "Choice" of course lays emphasis in a way that assists this denial.

Yet it is also true, but so much less remarked upon, that pregnancy too involves blood, gore and indeed something like a parasitical relationship. Embryos, fetuses and babies do not neutrally reside in their mothers' bodies, but actively draw from them. Pregnancy is much less dangerous than it used to be, but it is still corporally inconsequential only if it ends early (if even then). Maybe modern medicine lets all of us treat our bodies too lightly: so many of us seem to think that any damage we do may be fixed somewhere down the road by some drug or some surgeon. But it seems to me that we treat mothers' bodies especially lightly, as if pregnancy did not suck anyone's blood.

Today, "choice" is almost always the path a left-liberal takes to defend abortion rights, while liberalism's priority on "life" has been almost entirely appropriated by those who oppose abortion. Contemporary discussions thus repress what pregnancy demands of a woman's body. They obscure the fact that when a liberal state denies or too severely restricts abortion rights, then it is conscripting some bodies into service for others. Far more than it is now, abortion should be debated in terms of whether this conscription is justifiable in liberal, ethical terms.

In the current ideological climate, we try to play up "choice" more than ever: around Roe's 30th anniversary two years ago, NARAL, aka the National Abortion Rights Action League, appended "pro-choice America" to its name, thus distracting from that yucky word "abortion" and of course insisting on our (liberal) right to choose above all else. "Choice" let loose the concern - now voiced from left and right both - that women, in cahoots with evil "abortionists," light-mindedly ignore bodies and destroy babies.

What explains the propensity to forget or ignore how very much a pro-life position demands of a citizen-mother? I think it's an old misogynistic habit to treat women's bodies as less worthy of state protection than other people's bodies (though of course women's aren't the only lesser bodies: just think of our concerns about our cavalier treatment of our "volunteer" armed forces). But I think that contemporary political rhetoric hasn't helped matters.

Following the work of the political scientist Eileen McDonagh, who extends the pre-Roe arguments of Judith Jarvis Thompson, I've become convinced that embracing "choice" was maybe the worst wrong turn in abortion rights politics. Acknowledging that there are two bodies involved in pregnancy would force the left to admit that abortion always means killing a living thing. But, even more necessary today, it would also force the right to admit that all pregnancy involves a significant impingement upon, and not infrequently a real threat to, the mother's body.

The right needs to acknowledge that a pregnancy requires some citizens to put their bodies in harm's way: if the state compels pregnancy, then perhaps it should compensate mothers for the use of their bodies.

If Roe's framework has submerged the implication in pro-life arguments that the state might be indifferent to the conscription of one body for another's purpose, then this is another reason to let Roe go. And as Roe comes under further attack, then it becomes even more important to inject political arguments about abortion with a renewed appreciation that abortion rights protect physical bodies as well as mental choices.

January 12, 2005

Male Headship

Lynn Sanders: January 12, 2005

In political discourse - as opposed to the discourse that takes place in religious contexts like churches or Christian websites - we'll hear, as Don H. shows, opposition to gay marriage defended in Biblical or religious terms, via the insistence that marriage is a sacred covenant. Even those of us who find the political invocation of religion, specifically Christianity, troubling, may find, in this reference to a covenant, an entreaty to be faithful to one's chosen partner that is appealing, for both personal and political reasons.

There's an elephant in the room, though, in political discussions about the need to restrict marriage to men and women. That elephant is male headship: the idea (stated as generously as I know) that in a marriage of two equals, one male and one female, the man must be assigned, and must take, responsibility to lead the family this pair creates. The partnership of equals that marriage is supposed to affirm is also supposed, according the idea of male headship, always to be hierarchical, and always to be a hierarchy with the man on top. Gay marriage is threatening not only because it is ungodly, but because it undermines or even mocks the "man" at the head of this hierarchy.

What's most interesting to me about male headship is the way that it seems suppressed in political, as opposed to religious, discourse today. While there is an animated and straightforward discussion of male headship in many contemporary contexts (where, for example, interlocutors take on the difficult challenge of distinguishing "male headship" from "male domination"), the whole issue seems decidely soft-pedaled in politics. Discussions in the US Congress feature vigorous defenses of "traditional marriage," yet what the tradition of marriage demands is left unstated. Or at least some of it is left unstated: the idea that, traditionally, marriage meant a sacred covenant is now openly stated in our politics. But the idea that it might demand gender hierarchy is left aside.

Mary Lyndon Shanley has studied marriage for many years; here is one of her essays containing a straightforward claim about what marriage entailed, traditionally: a convenant, and a hierarchy. Shanley's essay describes the various reforms that moved Americans away from "coverture" marriage and assigned to American woman legal and political personalities apart from their husbands. Today, traditionalists seem both to be reacting against the erosion of masculine prerogative in marriage that these reforms entailed, and yet unwilling, at least in secular, political contexts like the US Congress, openly to demand a return to legally inscribed male headship.

To be sure, there are exceptions to the generalization I've put forth, and they're interesting. Shanley cites the secular figure William Kristol's stated emphasis on "the necessity of marriage, the importance of good morals, and the necessity of inequality within marriage." Some conservative commentators, then, seem to be willing to follow openly the threads of logical implication that the call for a return to traditional marriage entails. And then, there's the fascinating way that, from the Moynihan report forward, American political commentators are willing to advance the idea of male headship for black families. That is, we discuss the hierarchical implications of traditional marriage more openly when we're discussing the "problem" of the black family.

Finally, I wonder if there's some link between the opposition to gay marriage and the possibility that David Velleman raised that 2004 might have been about the value of masculinity. The reason I wonder is because, in a conversation I recently had with a conservative Democratic Party activist about why Kerry lost, this activist insisted that Democrats lost because of two things: Teresa Heinz Kerry and gay marriage.

So, for discussion: does the suppression of the male headship question reflect an unwillingness or an inability to be honest or straightforward about what traditional marriage really entails? Or, is it possible now, post-feminism, to assert that marriage can be restricted to a man and a woman, yet also be egalitarian? Why isn't any of this spelled out - is there a hidden masculine superiority agenda in opposition to gay marriage?

January 19, 2005

A testosterone cloud?

Lynn Sanders: January 19, 2005

I don't know if it is possible to discuss Harvard President Summers' remarks discreetly, but I'll try.

First, what Summers I think did was say that any attempt to explain the lower levels of high achieving women academics in math, science and engineering should include, as one of the hypotheses tested, the possibility that their biology disadvantages women. He suggested too that sex discrimination should be another hypothesis. The storm of controversy has thus developed around the question of whether biological differences should ever be introduced in social scientific explanations for social inequality: whether this hypothesis should even be considered.

Some would say that intellectual freedom demands that no explanation ever be ruled out, no matter how offensive or preposterous it might seem. Summers was just being a scientist, we could say, brainstorming about hypotheses to test. Commenting on the "intellectual tsunami" that he has provoked, we might defend him by saying, science demands that any hypothesis be available for consideration.

I see in this cloud of controversy a connection to the long discussion at what's up at the universities.

I know there may be a lot of disagreement about this, but from where I sit, in a political science department, it seems that there's very little reluctance to consider claims about the social consequences of biological difference. That is, it is not as if this sort of hypothesis, however provocative or offensive it is, is suppressed. Maybe that's because here at the University of Virginia, there are a lot of political conservatives in the social sciences. So this fall, here in Charlottesville, social scientific discourse included the entertainment of the hypothesis that women are naturally better equipped for childcare because they are less disturbed than men are by the smell of a baby's diapers. (Click here for a less comic and more balanced rendition of the work generating this discussion.)

Further, in an odd replaying of Betty Friedan's attempt to address "the problem that has no name," a number of my colleagues are currently explaining the malaise they see among young women as a product of feminism's suppression of natural feminine inclinations. That is, nature drives women to nuture, but feminism, distorting nature, has pushed young women to seek achievement and made them unhappy. (For whatever it's worth, if you don't like the way that contemporary culture turns every problem into one that can be treated by therapy, I think you have to go after this attempt to minister to young women too.) Anyway, my point here is not to engage this claim on the merits, but simply to point out that from this particular corner of the academy, the idea that biologically based sex differences explain social outcomes seems to be getting plenty of play.

Indeed, it seems to me - I may be wrong on this, I emphasize that this is only my impression - that we've arrived at a(nother) cultural moment when biological factors seem quite prevalent as explanations for various social phenomena, from low numbers of women mathematicians to terrorism to conflict resolution to homosexuality. Of course all of these problems and their associated explanations differ widely. But again, the point is, the social scientific academy seems quite willing in general to consider hypotheses about biological difference.

Biological explanations that come from the right, especially to explain social inequality, are infamous, really notorious, perhaps unfairly so. Introducing natural difference to explain inequality is not precisely the same thing as justifying inequality, but it seems perilously close to many observers, and thus generates the kind of controversy surrounding Summers now.

But though the right seems to have a premium on notorious biological explanations - the Bell Curve comes to mind - clearly this sort of argument is not the exclusive preserve of the right. One area of political rhetoric on the left where claims about nature have powerful hold is, of course, claims by some gay people about the origins of their sexual preferences. On a different topic, I see a resonance between some contemporary claims made by social scientists about the worrisome effects of testosterone, and some radical feminism from a few decades ago. Both seem to agree that men, left to their own devices (that is, not married or otherwise disciplined) will follow their biological drive to rampage. (Here's a perverse observation about common ground: I suspect we could find a version of the suggestion that too much testosterone is a recipe for social and political disaster, that would offend virtually everyone.)

On that note, I think it would be a good exercise for all of us, left and right, to think carefully about both those instances when explanations based in biological difference seem appealing and intuitively correct to us and, even more important, when they offend us. For, again, there should be something here to offend just about everyone. As much as our natural propensities sometimes excuse us, no one wants to be the captive of her nature, and certainly not of anyone else's impression of what that nature is or what it implies or demands.

I'd like to suggest for discussion the idea that there might be something especially dangerous or incendiary about biological explanations, that intellectually, they might be a little like playing with fire. I'm decidedly not saying we should never make them, or that they should always, automatically, be ruled out. But I'd like us to address how very slippery they are. Perhaps it is some remote effect of a political culture based in claims about natural political rights, but clearly in the United States attributions about biological differences have occasionally gone wildly awry. Here I point again to the work of University of Virginia colleagues.

In order to ward off the simplistic attribution to me that I think everything is social construction, and by implication we can engineer social solutions to any biological givens we don't like, let me say simply: I don't. I think there is a complicated and fascinating relationship between our biology, our hormones especially, and our physical and mental capacities.

May 01, 2005

Just a few slaps between friends?

Lynn Sanders: May 1, 2005

Should the state take a special interest in violence between intimates (spouses, ex-spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends)? In the Gamecocks and Battered Women discussion, Tad Brennan remarked “I hope we can do it better, but I don't think it helps to suggest that the state get out of it.”

I wonder if the only reason for thinking the state shouldn’t be involved in this area is that feminists insisted that maybe it should be. The thinking can’t possibly be as simple as, anything that a feminist advocated, I must oppose – can it?

There are some good reasons that any liberal (a label that many, many feminists would very vigorously resist, by the way) might consider violence between intimates a concern worthy of heightened state scrutiny. There also should be plenty of feminist qualms about the interventions against DV that feminist advocacy helped produce.

Consider first why state intervention in the problem of DV might be a very easy question for those of us enmeshed in the liberal political tradition. A straightforward, liberal and minimalist answer to the question, when are state actors allowed to interfere in the liberty of citizens? is, when one citizen is physically harming another (drawing blood, leaving bruises, breaking bones). Thus, enlisting state actors to intervene in cases of assault and battery doesn’t generally bother even those most troubled by any exercise of state power.

To extend this argument slightly: if it turns out that some citizens are particularly vulnerable to harm in some domains, then it becomes easier to justify a supervisory or intrusive role for state actors in those domains. This claim, too, enjoys a strong liberal pedigree. Something like it animates all sunshine laws, and it clearly accords with the liberalism Judith Shklar explicated as the liberalism of fear.

Are intimate relationships worthy of the state's special attention? Consider this figure from the Department of Justice:


It seems simply not a controversial claim to say that women in the United States remain disproportionately vulnerable to violence at the hands of those closest to them. To be sure, women are much less likely than men to be victims of homicide in the first place (men were more than three-quarters of homicide victims in the US between 1976 and 2002).

But, according to data from recent years, when women are victims of homicide, they are killed by a partner about a third of the time. When men die in homicides, they are killed by partners between 3 and four percent of the time. Again, I base these claims on DOJ data. Note too that I focus here only on homicides, but similar gender patterns obtain in non-lethal assaults. Also according to the Department of Justice, “during 1998 women were the victims of intimate partner violence about five times more often than males.” No wonder the President is concerned.

Intimate violence can’t be dismissed as a feminist exaggeration. But this is not to say that some of the interventions initially advocated by feminists and adopted in many American jurisdictions have clearly worked well. Some of the most well-known are called mandatory arrest policies. In general, these policies are designed to take the onus of complaining of violence off the victim and to place it upon law enforcement agents. The DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women encourages efforts by states and municipalities to expand these policies.

A fair assessment of these policies must allow the point raised repeatedly in the Gamecocks discussion, that the dynamics of partner violence are psychologically complex. Part of this complexity is that victims participate in violent relationships through their own violence, through their non-violent provocations, and by staying in relationships. It is an important point that departing a violent, controlling relationship is often the most dangerous time in a battering relationship, because the batterer loses control when the victim leaves. Indeed, homicides occur disproportionately when or after victims leave.

Still, the dangerousness of leaving can’t fully explain why people stay in violent relationships. A few years ago the New York Times magazine published Deborah Sontag’s piece called “Fierce Entanglements” (November 17, 2002), which is a poignant account of the psychological complexity of battering relationships.

Sontag’s article also points up how the state power behind mandatory arrest policies is exercised disproportionately against less privileged citizens. Both from my reading of the studies of these policies and from my own experience working with survivors of domestic violence, I think it is irresponsible not to consider the possibility that such policies might produce especially bad effects for those who are already less well off.

Another qualm is that, in implementation, mandatory arrest policies sometimes treat all parties to violent altercations as equivalent. In one municipality I know of, officers are required to arrest all parties who might be responsible for any signs of injury. So if both parties bear the marks of a fight – if a victim has fought back – both parties are arrested.

In addition, it is demonstrable that, as implemented, mandatory arrest policies and other anti-DV interventions (for example, programs by prosecutors in some municipalities to encourage victims to testify against batterers) not infrequently “take crucial decisions about prosecuting a case out of these women’s hands” which “serves only to disempower them and to deny their personal agency” as Cathy Young says (this link goes to the original Reason magazine piece from which Mona quoted).

Everyone interested in this question should appreciate how relatively new the “problem” of state intervention in domestic violence is. Although a few states began passing laws against wife-beating in the late nineteenth century, until the 1970s “the American legal system continued to treat wife beating differently from other cases of assault and battery … men who assaulted their wives were often granted formal and informal immunities from prosecution” (Reva Siegel, 105 Yale Law Journal 2118). Feminists started chipping away at state laws and policies that overlooked spousal battery and granted immunity from prosecution for spousal rape only three decades ago. The last state law allowing a marital rape exemption was not eliminated until 1993, so I’m not sure it is possible to grant the wish that “the notion of spousal immunity from assault and battery charges is now long gone.”

The appeal to be lenient with perpetrators now is said to emanate particularly from those victims of DV who feminism prevents from exercising their personal autonomy. What a bizarre state of affairs. But even if flexibility with batterers did grant victims autonomy, why should a liberal state ever overlook or treat more lightly the physical harms perpetrated on any citizen by another?