A Closer Look at TLC’s Sister Wives

I returned home from my cousin’s wedding Sunday night, happy and exhausted with barely enough energy to flop onto the couch and turn on the TV. That is how I found myself watching the two new episodes of TLC’s Sister Wives, a reality TV show about a modern polygamous family. I think the expected feminist response to a show about polygamy is a negative one, summed in this post on Jezebel: “Sister Wives Talk Like Soul-Sucking Stepford Zombies.” It’s easy to condemn the show, and “the lifestyle” (as they call it) but after watching the first few episodes, I found myself pondering polygamy and its presence in our history as Jews. After all, my biblical namesake was a sister wife.

When it comes to bible study, I am only familiar with the basics. But even I know that polygamy features prominently in the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The story I know best is that of Jacob, who married both Leah and Rachel. (This story is expanded in the midrash told by Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent) Rachel, the woman Jacob married for love, gave birth to Joseph and eventually died in childbirth with her second child, Benjamin. Thanks to polygamy, Jacob was able to father the 12 sons (and one daughter) who would go on to father the 12 Tribes of Israel with his wife Leah and their hand servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. It’s hard to ignore the centrality of polygamy, or “plural marriage” in our own cultural heritage.

This is not to say that I condone polygamy, especially in its biblical form. The Torah is also full of incest (Leah and Rachel were Jacob’s first cousins), slavery, and other things we now understand to be wrong. Judaism’s strength is that it grows and adapts with the times, although we too have fundamentalist communities that oppress women through rigid adherence to traditional gender divisions and roles.

The fundamentalist fringe of Mormonism that is spotlighted on TLC’s Sister Wives is of a similar vein. And by embracing polygamy in a form that mirrors the biblical tradition, in which one man marries and fathers children by multiple wives, the “Polyg lifestyle” is wrought with anti-feminist land mines. Jezebel writes:

It’s too bad the Today show host didn’t ask Kody or his wives to discuss their beliefs. Because if you’re not familiar with what Kody vaguely calls “his faith” — that is, religious fundamentalism — then you might think, wow, these people are so edgy! So open-minded! It’s just a big happy family! You might not realize how the extreme, patriarchal belief system belittles and oppresses women.

But after watching Sister Wives, it’s hard to hate or even snark at these people. From what we see, anyway, these people – the four wives, one husband, and 15 children – are genuine and intelligent people. For religious fundamentalists, they seem pretty normal; they live modern lives, integrate into the secular world, and are happy to give their children the freedom to make their own choices about faith and marriage when they grow up. Despite Jezebel’s categorization as “Stepford Wives,” the women are open about their feelings, their insecurities, and their personal struggles with polygamy. They readily admit jealousy and doubt, but also discuss the support, love and fulfillment that they gain from the arrangement. If anything, they are complex characters who made a choice, and like the rest of us, understand that bettering ourselves and working on our relationships is a lifelong process.

Watching Sister Wives, I started to realize that the benefits of polygamy that the show highlights are real, but they are not exclusive to polygamous lifestyles. The benefits are the same ones you would find from any type of communal living where multiple adults contribute incomes to a larger family unit and multiple adults parent the community’s children as a group. (Think: hippie commune, Walden Two.) I would also argue that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about rejecting monogamy. The idea that men are allowed to have multiple partners but women are not is sexist. You can also argue that the institution of marriage, which traditionally made women the property of their husbands, is sexist. But polyamory, often dubbed “ethical nonmonogamy,” is a great example of a very feminist-friendly model in which men and women can both have meaningful and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners. The poly community is, in fact, a place where you are likely to find some of the most progressive, liberal, and feminist people out there.

I think it’s important to take the time to think about Sister Wives before we condemn it outright. While polygamy in this form is illegal, and Kody Brown is now being investigated by the police, it is possible to gain some insights from this peek into “the lifestyle.” For one, it made me think about the benefits of communal living among extended families or friends. By examining certain similarities to the modern polyamorous community, I was reminded that some alternatives to monogamy can be feminist and progressive. I came to realize that my problem with Sister Wives is not a problem with the family itself (they are actually quite likeable people), nor is it a problem with alternate polyamorous lifestyles. What I do have a problem with is religious fundamentalism and its adherence to biblical notions of marriage and paternalism. And that applies to Jewish fundamentalists as well.

[This was originally posted at Jewesses with Attitude.]

Anti-feminist, anti-sex bloggers do not speak for me or my generation

Well, that pesky feminist-antagonizer is at it again. Susan Walsh, who only recently became “known” to the internet world for her vicious and nonsensical attack on Jaclyn Friedman, is now arguing against sex-positivism with another attack that specifically mentions Jacyln and Amanda Marcotte in the title, which is not surprising since that strategy paid off so well for her last time. Her post really doesn’t say much we don’t already know about her beliefs, but some of the arguments she is throwing out in the comments are so bizarre that they are hard to ignore.

Susan Walsh says:  I have no interest in where JF has sex, with how many people, or anything else. What I am interested in is her idea, that this model can work. If more than a few outliers were to actually adopt such a model, the economy, then society, would collapse. For this reason, it will always be the talk of the fringe.

I would love to see some data (from a credible source, mind you) that proves that “if the world were having casual sex” the economy, and then society, would collapse. Also, it would be great if you could show me some data proving that it’s only a few “outliers” who have embraced casual sex and sex-positivism. Consider it a challenge – anyone who can do it gets a cookie. (Hint: you’re never getting that cookie.)

The second thing that caught my attention was this:

Hooking Up says:

Both Friedman and Marcotte are middle-aged so I imagine that aging, along with drinking the sex-positive kool aid for so many years, frees them to be detached. But it’s not a prescription for your average 20 something who still wants to experience “true love” and “bonding” – which comes with a bit of possessiveness as it’s territory.

Susan Walsh says:

@Hooking Up

Welcome, thanks for leaving a comment! It’s interesting that you raise the question of age. I’m finding that nearly all of the women I’m in opposition to on this issue are in their late 30s or 40s. I suspect they don’t want to know what is really going on for women on campus, or women in their 20s looking for “true love.” The truth is that when Marcotte and Friedman graduated from college, hookup culture was just taking hold. They’re a generation to old to be promoting no-strings sex to students.
I’m older still – but I don’t speak for myself, I speak for the women who come to me for support in a culture that is fairly hostile to relationships. We need to be objective and familiarize ourselves with the research, whether or not it fits with our political objectives. Failure to acknowledge failed policy continually puts a new generation of women at risk.

So apparently, women who are “middle-aged” (I’m not exactly sure when 30’s became middle aged) might be able to practice casual sex without emotional devastation, but only because they have, er, numbed to the pain or something? So apparently Jaclyn Friedman and Amanda Marcotte are “too old” to speak for young women. Susan Walsh, who is older still, however, claims that she can – and does – speak for young women.

The thing is, Jaclyn and Amanda never claimed to speak for young women. Jaclyn’s piece, My Sluthood, Myself, was so powerful in part because she spoke only for herself and was very careful to point out that sex and relationships are different for EVERYBODY and cannot be generalized. In fact, that is the basis of the idea of “sex-positivism” that Walsh thinks will destroy society.

Susan Walsh, however, does claim to speak for young women and that offends me. As a young woman. It’s easy to speak for the handful of young women you socialize with, and maybe even the ones who read your blog. Susan Walsh says she speaks for the young women that come to her, and that would be fine if she recognized the fact that she’s not speaking for ALL young women – just some. And that is why in my response, I would love to be able to say that I speak for my entire generation, but obviously I cannot.

But I can say that I personally disagree with Susan Walsh just about as vehemently as possible. I can also say that the young people I associate with and the young people who comment on my blog also disagree with Susan Walsh.

I believe that casual sex can be a healthy and fulfilling experience. I believe that women are no more likely than men to “get attached” to a sexual partner during a hookup, despite Walsh’s claims about oxytocin, which Heather Corinna does an excellent job of dismantling using actual research at Scarleteen. I believe that people can enjoy periods of causal sex and then still have perfectly healthy monogamous relationships down the road if that is what they so desire. I believe that people can have sex, casual or otherwise, with any number of partners without destroying their chances at “finding love.”

Oh, and I don’t believe that if the world embraced sex-positivism, the economy, and then society, would collapse.

I am 24 years old. It was my generation that all those New York Times articles referred to when they wrote about “hook up culture.” Hell, they were referring to me. During my college years, I was a sex educator and sex counselor for my fellow classmates. I wrote a sex column for the school newspaper. And if, for some reason, being 3 years out of college disqualifies me from being considered a “young woman,” I would like to share an excerpt from a piece I published in my school newspaper in 2006, when I was 20 years old.

I wrote this BEFORE I identified as a feminist, before I began reading sites like Feministing, before I had ever heard of Jaclyn Friedman, Amanda Marcotte, or  Jessica Valenti. These were the conclusions I came to as a young woman in college based on my own experiences, the experiences of my friends, and the experiences of those I counseled, not to mention the courses on sexuality and gender theory that I took.

From “Meditations on Hooking Up”

Even Sex and the City did an episode on women having sex like men where they posed the question: Is it even possible for women to have sex without emotional attachment? I think it is definitely possible. I think it is possible for the women to have sex without attachment, just as I also think women can get attached after having sex. Same goes for everyone else, of any gender. I also think the same person can have sex with one person and feel nothing, then have sex with another person and be unable to keep emotions out of it.

But having sex without emotion is not having sex like a man. And having sex with attachment is not having sex like a woman. Its having sex like a human, and we are all capable of an entire spectrum of emotional responses, or lack thereof.

But Walsh would like you to believe that her cohort is the mainstream and all us sex positive people are on the fringe. She included a poll on her blog post, the results of which I’m sure she’ll include in her follow-up post. How much do you want to bet the results back up her position?

After my last exchange with Walsh, I swore to myself that I would not let myself get baited and that I would take the high road. Or, that if I was going to be snarky, I would at least do it in a mature fashion. I admit that a previous dig at her for being afraid sluts were coming to steal her husband was a tad immature – and sadly, I’m the one she’s referring to when she wrote: “Until now, sex pos fems have portrayed dissenters primarily as women who are afraid that the ‘sluts are stealing all the menz.’ A favorite theme in their attacks on me was that I fear losing my husband to a woman like Friedman.” But at least I know when I’m being immature. It’s ironic – as it turns out – that it was me, a 24 year old, who stooped to her level, rather than the other way around.

Unlike Walsh, I do not claim to be able to speak for entire generations or entire genders. I do not claim to know what kind of sex is best for everybody else. I do not make wild, outlandish statements without data to back them up. I have respect for scholarly research, and take the time to evaluate a source’s credibility and bias. I do not respond to reasoned criticism by saying “nah, nah, I got more comments than you.” And I do not presume to believe that polling my own blog audience would give me a representative sampling of public opinion.

So no, I cannot speak for all young women and disprove Walsh’s ideas about my generation’s beliefs about sex and relationships. But I can add my own voice to the mix, and invite others to as well.

The reality is that people of all generations and of all genders have a diverse array of beliefs about sex and relationships. And that, in a nutshell, is why I believe in a sex positive model that validates that diversity of belief.

But if I were hard-pressed to make a generalization, I would argue that there is one thing MOST of us can agree on: that “If more than a few outliers were to actually adopt such a model, the economy, then society, would collapse…” is a load of crap.

On V-Day it’s better to be miserable than single

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I can honestly say that this year I am glad I don’t have a “special someone” to share it with.  Why?  Because in all likelyhood, he wouldn’t be that special. I wouldn’t be that attracted to him in the first place, and he would be counting the minutes until the date was over so he could go drive his Dodge Charger. We would only be staying together for the sake of our potential children anyway. Forget “Mr. Right” ladies; the best we can hope for this year is “Mr. Good Enough.”

Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him! (soon to be a book – oh joy!) urges women everywhere to give up on the idea of a great guy and settle for an okay one. Apparently you aren’t going to find “sparks” with men who make good husbands and fathers and your baby-clock is ticking. (Don’t you just love all the assumptions here?  Like that you’re less likely to have “sparks” with a guy who would make a good husband or father?  Or that you are interested in getting married and having babies in the first place?  Or that you are, you know, straight?)  

It’s more important that you be with someone, no matter how lame he is, than be “alone on Valentine’s Day, staring down a George Clooney movie over a half-empty pizza box,” as the New York Times recently suggested.  So who is this “Mr. Good Enough,” and how does he feel about all this?

It looks like Mr. Good Enough isn’t enjoying this relationship very much either. In fact, he needs to be bribed into it with a fast car that represents something about his manhood. Alright, it’s obvious to you, me, and everyone here that this isn’t working. (If it’s a burden to have to put your underwear in the basket or clean up after you shave then maybe it’s best if you live alone.) Time to cut our losses and move on, right?  Wrong. 

The following video is a clip from the MTV’s Teen Mom reunion in which Dr. Drew tries to convince teen parents Macy and Ryan to get back together.  Macy and Ryan tried to stay together for the sake of their son even though they were both miserable in the relationship. After multiple break ups, couples counseling, and a broken engagement, they finally called it quits. In the first segment of this clip, Dr. Drew makes some crazy arguments about gender and parenthood and then tries to guilt the teens into getting back together for the baby’s sake, even after Ryan states that if it weren’t for the baby, he would never speak to Macy again.  Poor kids (and I don’t mean the babies).

All signs point to the sad notion that hetero relationships are something we have to be bribed into, guilted into, or something we should settle for. No wonder conservatives are concerned about the state of marriage in this country.  Still, pressuring hetero couples to marry regardless of their best interests hardly seems like the answer. But according to the noise, it’s better that men and women are miserable together than alone, “staring down a half-empty pizza box” on a Friday night.

I don’t know about you, but pizza is looking pretty good to me.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Romancing rape culture

There is nothing like getting lost in a good book.  For the past few days I have been immersed in Diana Gabaldon’s The Outlander, an engrossing story about a WWII nurse who falls through an enchanted craig and finds herself in the 18th Century Scottish Highlands.  I had reached the halfway point when certain events began to make me very uncomfortable.  And then it hit me; I was reading rape culture.

It all started when the Jaime, the strapping young lad, beat Claire, our protagonist and his new bride.  Jaime, who had up until then been portrayed as a fair, sensitive, and considerate man, beat Claire as punishment for making a mistake that put others in danger.  Now, to be fair, his behavior is probably accurate for an 18th Century clansman.  However, Claire is a woman of the 20th Century, and she is steadfast opposed to wife-beating.  She vows never to forgive her husband, but she forgives him the next day essentially saying, “Well, I see your point.”

Later, Claire and Jaime get into an argument.  Unable to comprehend or accept Claire’s autonomy, Jaime responds with sexual violence, stating that she is his woman and he’ll have her whenever he damn pleases.  And then he rapes her.  Brutally.  As Gabaldon takes you through the graphic rape, I get the feeling that I’m supposed to be turned on.  But instead my feminist insides were raging in a putrid turmoil.  I felt sick.

The next morning the couple wakes up cute and happy.  Apparently it had been some great sex, despite the pain, bleeding, and bruises.  Then Jaime wants to have sex again, and Claire responds “No way, I’m way too sore.”  His response? Too bad. And then he rapes her again.  But he is gentler than usual, so apparently, it’s okay.  And after all this violence and rape, Claire finally realizes that she loves him. So much so that presented with the chance to return to her own time (spoiler alert) she chooses to stay with Jaime, her lover, her protector, and her rapist.  WTF?

As a point of interest, I have absolutely no problem with S&M or rape fantasies in erotica or porn — assuming that everyone involved is aware of what is going on and consents to reading/watching/participating.  As I was reading this, I felt at odds with myself.  The scenes were very reminiscent of S&M scenes, and in that light, I can respect the fact that both Claire and Jaime could enjoy the experience of power play and sexual violence.  But it didn’t feel right.  Claire did not consent.  This was a story about love, and there is something very twisted about slipping rape fantasies into a romance and passing it off as love.

If Diana Gabaldon’s goal was to get us off using rape fantasies, she should have labeled her book “rape fantasy erotica,” not romance.  That way, her readers could choose to consent to reading it.  But by disguising it, she has played us false. Her message, unintended as it might be, is that passionate love is inextricably linked to rape and violence, or perhaps that sexual violence is an expression of true love.

Rape culture is one in which books-for-women-by-women feature strong, masculine heroes who are lovable, respectable and sexy, even though they beat and rape women.  How many women will walk away from The Outlander under the impression that rape is what brings passion to a relationship?  How many will go forth looking for a dashing hero just like Jaime?  And even more upsetting, how many will find one?