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As everybody can probably guess, I just love love love Dan Savage. I’ve definitely disagreed with him on occasion, but he’s right far more often than he’s wrong. More than anything, I grew up in a culture that was not ashamed of sex, where I was told that sexual pleasure was normal, natural and good, and I love that Dan Savage unapologetically continues advocating for that when so many other people have become mealy-mouthed on the subject.

My mother very much wanted to raise strong, independent minded women who were not ashamed of their bodies or normal sexual desires. Needless to say, she wasn’t anything like Michelle Duggar. We didn’t have “rules”, just advice and suggestions.

No one is going to put my mother on the cover of any magazines soon because her opinions on sex are highly commonplace for women of her generation. As the old saw goes, Dog Bites Man is not news, Man Bites Dog is news, and the Duggars are better than twenty-one men biting twenty-one dogs in tutus and tiaras. Consequently, Michelle Duggar, with her highly unusual opinions about women’s sexual behavior gets her own tv show and magazine covers announcing “Our Rules for Sex and Love.”

Really, you almost have to feel bad for Dan Savage, sitting in a barber shop, having the two eldest Duggar daughters smiling at him over that come hither headline. The man has made a career out of being a bold advice columnist writing primarily about relationships and sex and here are two young women, living in a religious cult version of Plato’s cave, talking about their parents’ rules for sex and love. It’s almost like a provocation.

(Note to Dan Savage’s barber: Get better reading material.)

As Savage notes in his column, the Duggars are not just a few individuals with quirky ideas. They are a politically active family that would like to remake the rest of us in their image.

One of the rules for marriage they are promoting is that a woman can never say no to sex. Via Savage:

And once a Duggar girl is married, says Mom, she is never allowed to say no to sex. “Duggar women don’t get headaches,” Michelle told Us. “You always need to be available when he calls.” And if you’re not always available—if you do get a headache, or you’re just not in the mood one night, or if turns out that your husband prefers Dad’s auditions—then you’re to blame when your husband cheats on you.

Sometimes, I am under the impression that we in the United States are a little bit naive. We have lived in a modern society for so long that it really doesn’t register in our minds what the full impact of these ideas might be. Michelle Duggar is not horrifying to us because we know that she lives in the U.S. and if she wanted to leave Jim Bob Duggar she could. There is little preventing her legally, or in society as a whole.

Shortly after reading Savage’s opinion of the Duggars, I came across a blog post that put Michelle Duggar’s comment about how she must always be sexually available for her husband in context. It was an email from a woman who lives in a culture where wifely submission is the norm. It was written to Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger, Eiynah who writes about sexuality on her website Nice Mangos. In this email, the writer, who lives in Pakistan, says that she’s sharing her story because “so that other women may speak up if this is happening to them.”

The writer, who reports being intimidated by her husband, was in labor with her second child. Her husband went to a friend’s party while she went to the hospital alone. Eventually, however, he showed up.

Immediately after the birth of my child he spoke to the hospital staff, stating that our first born was still a toddler, and that I was needed at home because of that. I was discharged within 6 hours.

I don’t know what is the norm, but it is clear that she was discharged according to his needs, not hers. Afterwards, she was in excruciating pain from the episiotomy.

As soon as I got home, I was expected to care for all my in laws, cook and clean for them as well as look after my two children. An impossible feat when one can barely stand. The first days after child-birth, you need pampering, as any new mother will tell you. You need to be looked after and you need to recover. You need all the help you can get. And to have two children under four, is extremely exhausting. To be expected to cook and clean and wait on people as soon as you enter the house, borders on some sort of abuse. It is abuse actually, now that I look back on it. I don’t know how I managed. But somehow I did, because I had no choice. I was expected to take over the house work, because I was the ‘daughter-in-law’ and that was my role. If I refused the consequences could have been worse. I got through it somehow, but I would never wish it upon anyone.

Then we see the result of a society in which women are not allowed to ever refuse sex to their husbands.

On the third day after my delivery my husband tried to initiate intercourse and I told him (hesitantly) that I had stitches, and that the doctor had told us to refrain for 40 days as well. Then he got mad (as he often did) and I was terrified of him going elsewhere to satisfy his sexual needs so I decided to just let him do what he wanted. He said he ‘needed’ it, and that nothing would happen.

He said that I shouldn’t refuse him sex because then he would have to go elsewhere for it. He could tell that I was in pain and he continued anyway, my body had tensed up, I told him that I was worried my stitches would tear, and he told me it would be ok, because he would be careful.

After that experience I was bleeding excessively and had to continue doing the housework for the whole household including waiting on my in-laws. At my next doctors visit, I told my doctor that we had had sex on the third day and she was very shocked and upset. She told me that we had to refrain. But even after that we continued having sex every four or five days (not my choice). I have never refused my husband sex, ever. Its just not an option. I was raised to keep the peace and please my husband.

She concludes:

Many years later, we obviously don’t have a great relationship. But I continue to do what I need to, to keep my marriage going.

Even in cultures where men are clearly dominant in a relationship, there are kind, caring men who would never dream of behaving in this way. However, if someone has the misfortune to be married to someone who is not, she has no recourse. The ethos the Duggars are promoting can only seem benign the context of the United States where we know that the wider society does not enforce these beliefs, but let’s not kid ourselves about what this would mean for some women if it were widely embraced. We have moved away from these attitudes because over the decades women have agitated to change them.

 

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I was looking for a phone in an isolated area. The campus had about as many acres as students, but there were only a handful of public telephones. There were several near the cafeteria and that was where I would go to call my parents about once a week or so. That, however, was one of the most public places. There were two dormitories about two miles away from the center of campus. I had rarely ever even been in one of them, but I had a vague recollection of having seen a pay phone there, so I walked over.

The walk down the narrow curving road with woods looming on either side reminded me of a recurring dream I’d been having for about a year. In it, I was riding a bicycle on a road very much like that one, perhaps slightly curvier. Slowly, I would lose my eyesight until couldn’t see the road anymore. I would try to stop, but instead I’d be speeding up. Through partial vision, I could barely see the road well enough to follow it. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all and I would crash. An anxiety dream, it was almost ridiculously easy to analyze.

A precocious student, I had graduated from high school early and received a nice, big, fat helping of scholarship money to attend this private liberal arts college. My first year, I loaded up on courses and was taking more than the suggested number of credits. My grades were excellent. Then my social life began to fall apart and, with it, my grades. I changed majors. Then I changed majors again. A year earlier, I went through a phase during which I didn’t bathe, didn’t get out of bed for days at a time and ate nothing but peanut butter. I received grades of incomplete in all the classes I had taken that semester. I had a year to make them up. The previous semester, the fall semester of my junior year, I finally settled on literature as a major for no better reason than I liked to read and it seemed to come easily to me. Read a few books. Mull them over for a day or so. Churn out twenty pages. I could do that even as I was falling apart. In fact, I felt as if I was finally beginning to put myself back together.

That’s where the anxiety dream came in. Unlike when I was younger, I no longer had a plan. I couldn’t see where I was going, I was just trying to navigate each curve as it came up on me. My grades were finally back up. I was attempting to make a few friends who were not part of a New Age cult. Did I really want to study literature? That certainly hadn’t ever been part of my plan, but now my plan was just to get the hell out of this fucking hell hole of a school with a bachelor of arts degree and my brain intact. What would I do after that? I barely had a clue.

And I had been so alone throughout all of this. When you’re young, and pretty, and talented, and bright everyone wants to be your friend. When you’re lost and confused, no one knows who you are. With help from no one, I was getting back to being someone people actually wanted to know.

Now, there was this.

The dormitory was a converted mansion. It was an odd building. Heavy and dark, it looked as if someone had tried to build a set for a production of Wuthering Heights without ever having so much as seen a picture of England. The first floor was a series of rooms, a kitchen and several other rooms with seemingly no purpose. It was the middle of the day while classes were in session and the dormitory was almost empty, as I had hoped. I walked into one of the purposeless rooms that had an array of institutional furniture that seemed nearly random. An indestructible club chair. A table. A couple of dining chairs. In the corner, as I had recalled, was a pay phone.

I dialed the phone number of the man I had met on New Year’s Eve. It was a long shot that he would even pick up the phone at that moment in the middle of the day, but he did. Without any introduction, I blurted out that I was pregnant, that I would probably have an abortion but male friends of mine had convinced me that it wasn’t fair that women make this decision on their own, so that if he wanted me to continue with the pregnancy we could talk about that. I had planned to add that he’d have to want sole custody, but I can’t recall if I got that far.

How did I know it was his?

Because he was the only man I’d fucked recently.

He didn’t believe me.

Fine, I was planning on having an abortion anyway. I was just trying to be fair to him.

Then this man about whom I knew next to nothing except that he loved Kant and had a larger than average penis, launched into one of the more shocking speeches I had heard at that point in my life. He accused me of trying to trap him into marriage. His family were aristocrats. They would never accept this. I was just a common slut and I was trying to trap him into marriage. He was outraged.

I never spoke to him again.

I’ve been writing down my experiences as a way of understanding why I believe some of the things I believe and why I hold some of the political positions I do. This conversation resulted in me feeling somewhat skeptical of men’s rights advocates when they complain that it is not fair that they have no say in abortion decisions. It’s not that I feel that they are disingenuous about their own position, but that they don’t actually represent men in general. Most men, I suspect, don’t really want the responsibility that this decision entails. Women have abortions, men don’t. Women have to bear the responsibility and the stigma. Many men, perhaps most, would prefer to keep it this way. However, I think I did the ethical thing in approaching this man, and it was obvious that he would have preferred that I hadn’t. I don’t know his position on abortion, but he was a practicing Catholic. One word and I wouldn’t have had an abortion. I don’t think he wanted that responsibility.

A while back, Dan Savage expressed the opinion that women should inform a man if they are going to have an abortion. I agree with everything he says, even the part that many feminists objected to, that the man’s desires should be taken into consideration. However, I think he is underestimating humans’ potential for denial and self-deception when he writes:

Guys need to know when they’ve dodged a bullet, CL. Being made aware that he came this close to 18 years’ worth of child support payments can lead a guy to be more cautious with his spunk—and, in some cases, more likely to support choice.

There’s an interesting assumption that Savage makes here, that what they are dodging are child support payments and not custody of a child, because the only way I would have considered carrying that pregnancy to term is if the man had agreed to take full custody. I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect that the man in question barely remembers this incident. He probably doesn’t acknowledge having dodged anything at all. It would be all to easy for him to rationalize it away. The incident changed the course of my life and I suspect it didn’t register for him at all.

It was also my introduction to notions about social class. Growing up in suburbia in the United States in an environment in which people ranged from the upper end of stable working class families to the lower end of the professional upper middle class, I was only faintly aware of class differences that weren’t simply linked to income. I’ve had a hatred for social class ever since.