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Homophobia is not just another point of view July 22, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Singapore, Society.
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32 comments

It has been a couple of weeks since the Thio-NYU incident and I think I’ve finally figured out why it has been bothering me so much. It’s not as if homophobia and other forms of intolerance don’t already irk me enough, but for some reason, just something about Dr Thio Li-ann’s cool response to the reactions of the law school’s LBGT organization to her anti gay stance, including an open letter from NYU student Jim McCurley (reproduced here), gave me a fortnight-long sense of unease.

 

 It wasn’t the fact that Dr Thio’s response seemed so calm and almost reasonable, so unlike her crass and tactless description of anal sex as “shoving a straw up your nose to drink” while arguing against the decriminalization of gay sex in Singapore. I did not assume for one second that she would present herself as anything less than professional in her capacity as a Professor, and especially to a more liberal audience such as NYU. It wasn’t even the irony that her course is about “Human Rights in Asia”, a topic that many have questioned about whether she is qualified to teach, given her failure to recognize the rights of homosexuals.

 

 No, what I find most disturbing about this whole incident was Dr Thio’s polite and articulate defense of her homophobia, so cleverly disguising homophobia as an almost legitimate view. In an e-mail interview, Dr Thio wrote:

 Everyone is entitled to their opinion, free conscience, free thought — that is a cardinal principle for every academic community. I hold to it, in my own law school, and I would expect the NYU law community to do so as well.

 

 I am disappointed at the intolerant animosity directed at me by strangers who do not know me and have decided to act on their own prejudices,

 

 Do some Americans by appropriating the rhetoric of human rights assume they can impose their views on another sovereign state? Is there a human right to sodomy? Is this a core right or a contested one? There are countervailing views that this is the wrong way to characterize the issue — so do students who dislike this view refuse to engage with dissenting views?

 Skillfully and shrewdly directing the blame to the “intolerant” proponents of gay rights, Dr Thio’s articulate argument managed to fool me into questioning my own position regarding pluralism and freedom of speech, and even got me wondering why I was so uncomfortable with such a seemingly coherent and “rational” argument in defense of homophobia.

 

 And then it hit me. Almost two distressing weeks later, I finally realized how faulty her sleek, astute argument was.

 

 First of all, Dr Thio made the flawed assumption that “free thought” and “freedom of opinion” entitles one’s opinion to be free from criticism. Not all opinions are created equal; some are simply better than others, and consequently deserve more respect than others. Just because Dr Thio, or anyone for that matter, has every right to believe anything she wants about homosexuality, it does not make us obligated to accept her beliefs as valid. I have just as every right to treat her views as a load of rubbish.

 

 Secondly, and perhaps most commonly ignored by many people, is the fact that homophobia is not merely another opinion. “Vanilla is the best ice cream flavor” is an opinion. But some things are not so simple. Let me illustrate. Consider the following “opinions”:

 

 “I don’t want those Indians near my daughter. Who knows what they’ll do to her.”

 “Blacks and whites should never get married to each other, let alone have mixed race kids. It’s just disgusting and wrong.”

 “Women don’t have the ability to take part in politics. They should just know their place and stay home to take care of the kids.”

 “I send my kids to elite schools so that they won’t have to mingle with those Chinese speaking neighborhood school kids – they’re all poor and uneducated anyway.”

 

 Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we. Those aren’t mere opinions. Those are examples of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. The difference is that bigotry and intolerance against races, sexes or classes are acknowledged as such, and not regarded as valid in a pluralistic society, whereas bigotry and intolerance against homosexuals are still treated as simply “differing opinions”, or mere disagreements.

 

 Would we allow a distinguished professor to get away with racist or sexist comments by explaining them away as his or her opinions? Would we let someone with sexist or racist views protest with self righteous indignation towards those darn “intolerant” feminists and civil rights activists who dare suggest that he or she was being bigoted or prejudiced? Would we still give Dr Thio the same respect and welcome her into an open, liberal university if she had argued against women’s right to social and political equality with men – which is after all still a contested right, with differing opinions on it,  in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran?  (Which are interestingly two of the few countries left which continue to criminalize homosexual sex.) Would we allow a racist or a sexist with a similar rhetoric as Dr Thio’s get away so easily?

 

 What bothers me most is the (correct or wrong) assumption that homophobia is still widely accepted by society as a valid opinion. Just like a racist, a homophobe has every right to his or her opinions, but should not feel anything less than ashamed to voice such intolerant views in public. A racist, a sexist, or a homophobe should have every reason to fear public backlash for proudly advocating intolerance and discrimination. To even suggest that such opinions should be respected is absurd.

 

 I guess to me this was the crux of the matter. It wasn’t the “surprising” news that Dr Thio is still against homosexual rights. It was the fact that yet again, we let her get away with it, when she and other proud homophobes should be publicly chastised the same way we do with proponents of other forms of bigotry and intolerance. It disturbs and depresses me that as a society, we are still unwilling to see homophobia as what it really is: prejudiced, self righteous narrow mindedness, and not just “another point of view”.

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Homophobes can’t handle being “the woman” July 16, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Rants, Society.
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7 comments

After a few exchanges I’ve had with homophobes, I’ve found that they share one thing in common: they have an immense fear of being approached by an interested gay man, and believe that this fear is enough to justify discrimination against gays and the criminalization of homosexuality.

 

What I find so perplexing is how traumatized these men are by the mere thought of receiving unwanted male attention. You see, as a woman, receiving unwanted male attention is an annoyance so mundane that I wouldn’t even waste my breath complaining about it. Being approached by a man that you’re not interested in is a banal experience shared by almost every woman, and I have yet to meet any one who felt so offended by it to even suggest that legislation or violence against these men should be necessary. Regardless of how we feel about it – insulted, annoyed, flattered or even disgusted, we embrace the fact that these men have every right to approach us with interest, just as we have every right to politely decline.

 

Unfortunately, homophobic men do not seem to share this view. It is all too common for them to justify violence and discrimination against gays based on the fear of receiving unwanted male attention. From a feminist perspective, the reactions of these homophobes are quite troubling. Their reactions are not just reflections of homophobia, it also says a lot about how uncomfortable they are about straying from strictly enforced traditional gender roles. In it is the inherent implication that there is something undesirable about being pursued “like a woman”.

 

Traditional gender roles usually prescribe the active role of the pursuer to the man, and the passive, receiver role to the woman. In this way, being the recipient of male attention implies femininity. In the mind of a misogynistic male (and probably in a misogynistic patriarchal society), femininity is equated with weakness, and is thus undesirable. In other words, the fear that homophobes have against unwanted male attention is a socially conditioned fear that they have of being associated with submissiveness, vulnerability, weakness and other undesirable feminine traits.

 

By introducing a gay man into the equation, the misogynistic male is suddenly stripped of his sexually dominant role; that is, he is now the object of pursuit, just like a woman. It is this perceived threat to masculinity that causes the homophobe to be so offended by unwanted male attention, and fuels his attempt to reinstate his “manliness” through homophobic insults or physical attacks. Add to that the fact that men are much more socially stigmatized for gender role reversals than women are, and we can (sort of) understand why some men are so violently opposed to appearing feminine.

 

It is because of this that I am particularly wary of homophobic men. How a man views homosexuals reveals exactly what he feels about women and gender roles in sexual interactions. At the very least, a homophobe who is “traumatized” by unwanted male attention simply lacks the empathy and understanding that it is precisely the same unwanted sexual attention that we women receive and accept as an everyday occurrence. But perhaps most worrying is the intrinsic allusion that connotations of femininity are undesirable becaue they suggest inferiority. As such, homophobes and homophobia speak volumes about the individual’s (and society’s) acceptance of patriarchy and the perpetuated recognition of women being lower on the totem pole of social hierarchy.

The moralistic notion of chastity till marriage July 8, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion, Society.
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8 comments

It makes a lot of sense to discourage teenagers from having sex. After all, they have neither the financial capability nor the emotional maturity to deal with unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. But moralistic conservatives do not see this issue with such practical sensibilities. (If they did, they’d be all for comprehensive sex education programs – which not only keep teenagers from having sex, it also helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs in those who do.) Instead, conservatives tend to attach the notion of morality to premarital sex, self righteously assuming that they are in a position to judge the sexual practices of others. The emphasis on virginity and “saving yourself” till marriage as a virtue in itself is disturbing and distasteful in both the misogynistic expectations it places on women and the nasty historical origins of the practice.

 

A man who requires his wife to be a virgin

 A man who requires his bride to be a virgin is at the very best an insecure man who cannot handle comparison, or at the very worst a controlling possessive misogynist who felt the need to control his wife’s body and sexuality even before they met. Marriage is a pact for the future, not for the past. The need for loyalty and commitment within the present relationship does not necessitate the ridiculous assumption that you should have a say in the past choices of your significant other. That is simply a sign of possessiveness, insecurity, and a chauvinistic desire for the territorial ownership of women and their bodies.

 We only have to look to glaring examples of such men: those who explicitly seek mail order brides who can “prove” their virginities. Notions of “purity” and “innocence” are simply euphemisms for the obvious reality that these women are valued for their subservient, demure nature and sexual inexperience. With society’s obsession with virginity (especially equating virgin girls as desirable and non virgin girls as whores) we are creating misogynistic expectations for women and perpetuating the notion that marriage is an unequal relationship between a dominant male and a submissive virgin bride.

 That is not to say that men are immune to society’s virginity obsession. In Singapore at least, there is an almost equal societal expectation for both men and women to remain virgins till they get married. But this does nothing to ameliorate the problematic issues that will arise out of glorifying virginity and demonizing fornicators: the notion of marriage as the “ownership” of your spouse, the possessive control of your spouse’s past, and worst of all, the flawed belief that your status of virginity says anything about who you are. Whether conservatives like it or not, the truth is that having sex before marriage doesn’t make you morally repugnant, and being a virgin all your life doesn’t make you a saint. Character judgments based on virginity are simplistic, inaccurate, and frankly, rather lazy.

 

The nasty historical origins of “chastity till marriage”

 Way back before the advent of reliable birth control or paternity tests, requiring your future bride to be a virgin was a means to ensure that you do not end up handing over your land or property to someone else’s child. Before marriage, girls and their sexuality were in effect the property of their fathers, and upon marriage, this ownership would then be transferred to their husbands. We see evidence of such beliefs in the bible:

Deuteronomy:

 22:13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her,

 22:14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:

 22:15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:

 22:16 And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;

 22:17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.

 22:18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;

 22:19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.

 22:20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:

 22:21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

 Translation: If a man hates his wife, he can claim that she wasn’t a virgin when she was married. If her father can’t produce “the tokens of her virginity”, the woman will be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house by the men in her city. Thus it is clear that in such a culture, women were seen as property, and their virginity was supposed to be guaranteed to their husbands by their fathers.

 

Deuteronomy:

22:28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;

 22:29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

 Translation: if a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, he must pay her father 50 shekels of silver and then marry her. From here we see that rape is not a crime against the woman, it is a crime against her father, because he is the one who owns her and her virginity.

 Though the examples I mentioned were from the bible, this misogynistic notion of women as property is by no means limited to religion. Confucian and African cultures also have practices involving virginity testing and proof of “deflowering” on the wedding night, where if it were discovered that the bride were not a virgin, her family would face considerable shame and the marriage could even be annulled. Under Anglo-Saxon law, rape law was a form of property law, whereby the rapist was punished by having to make compensation to the victim’s husband or her father, depending on who exercised ownership over her. In effect, rape was treated as an act of trespass on a woman’s body, which was male property.

 Today, such reasoning is not only archaic, it is simply sexist and offensive. Yet we still see similar cases made for the promotion of chastity until marriage, where the woman’s body and virginity is “reserved” for her future husband and rightful owner.

 But as long as we respect that women are people too, with the freedom to make their own choices, we cannot dictate one way or another whether and when a woman should have sex. A woman’s sexuality is of no one’s business but her own. To take it a step further, a person’s sexuality is of no one’s business but their own, and society’s obsession with chastity till marriage is simply a self righteous intrusion onto an individual’s personal choices.

Marital rape and the presumption of consent July 2, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Singapore.
Tags: , ,
15 comments

Maybe I have been too engrossed in the Aware saga, but I realize that many of my posts have been about homosexual issues, even though I am not homosexual myself. Today, after stumbling upon NoToRape.com (a campaign started by Jolene of Glass Castle) I decided to address a topic that hits much closer to home, but receives a lot less airtime: marital rape.

 

In Singapore, it is legal to rape your wife. That special contract that we call marriage not only has economic and cultural significance, it also grants men immunity from being charged for the rape of their wives. In giving them this immunity, the inherent message is that men are entitled to have sex with their wives, regardless of the latter’s consent.

 

Now, any decent, civilized person would be appalled at that archaic notion. It reeks way too much of the obsolete (and misogynic) idea that marriage is the transfer of ownership of a woman and her body from her father to her husband, thereby entitling her husband to sex as and when he pleases. Many Western countries have now recognized that marital rape is contrary to human rights and have criminalized the practice. Even England, from which Singapore’s marital rape exemption originated, abolished the exemption in 1991. But yet again, the Singapore government holds its conservative position and is against the repeal of this archaic law which protects husbands from being charged for rape, on the basis of “family values”.

 

How does permitting marital rape preserve “family values”? Well, their argument goes something like this: marital rape is a private affair and should be sorted out amicably by the couple involved (Funny how that logic doesn’t apply to homosexual sex) and the law should not interfere so as not to disrupt the traditional family unit which is the building block of society.

 

But what exactly are we preserving here? The notion that women are property, for their husbands to do whatever they see fit with them? The conservation of marriages involving abusive husbands? The perpetuation of misogynic messages and abusive behavior to be passed on to these couples’ children? Only with our conservative government’s logic would a woman staying with an abusive husband be viewed as a positive thing. It seems that the government sees the absence of reported marital rape as a good thing in itself, conveniently forgetting that simply not recognizing an act as criminal does not make it any less harmful, or cause it to occur any less frequently.

 

At the heart of the marital rape exemption is the issue of presumed consent. The marital rape exemption is usually justified by the assumption that marriage implies consent to sexual intercourse. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable. After all, we do not expect our husbands or wives (or even boyfriends or girlfriends), with whom we are in a long term sexual relationship, to ask for permission at the initiation of every instance of sexual intercourse. In fact, I do not think it is uncommon for such presumed “green lights” for assumed consent to exist within individual long term sexual relationships, where prior informal arrangements are made such that consent to sex can be assumed.

 

But such presumed “green lights” to sex are not concrete. There always exists a partner’s right to give a “red light” at any time he or she wishes. Regardless of whether consent was presumed, as long as you refuse someone’s request to stop doing something to them, you are committing an offence against his or her personal sovereignty. By retaining the marital rape exemption, we are effectively saying that marriage switches on a permanent “green light” to sex, and women are left without any option to retract this “green light” and say “No”. This notion is exemplified by the statement made by England’s former Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale:

the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Marriage was and is treated as a kind of “automatic” consent to sexual intercourse which cannot be revoked. Women were and are mere sex objects for their husbands, with no power or right to refuse sex.

 

By keeping the marital rape exemption, we are allowing men, especially abusive men, to make the claim of prior consent (by marriage) and basically protecting those who carry out the intentional rape of their wives. In my opinion, regardless of all potential problems (difficulty to prosecute, potential for false accusations, compromising of “family values” – all of which apply to many other crimes as well, I might add), it is not justifiable for the law to give immunity to someone who commits abusive acts. Dropping the presumption of consent would reduce the possibility that such abuse would continue with impunity.

 

No matter how offensive or inoffensive we find the notion of marriage implying presumed consent, this is ultimately an issue of choice. The marital rape exemption denies a woman the option of saying “No” to her husband. And in doing so, it legitimizes an abuser’s actions to violate his wife’s personal sovereignty over her own body. It is simply preposterous that this form of violation can be passed off as a “private issue” in the name of Family Values.

 

If you believe that the marital rape exemption should be repealed, and that marital rape should be a crime, I urge you to sign the petition here.

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