Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cultural Roadblocks on the Route to Equality

Belle Lettre has an excellent post the contra-contraception movement, both personally and politically (which, as the cliche goes and this post powerfully proves, are not very far apart at all). As Belle makes clear, there is a strong and growing political constituency growing out of the Christian Right that wishes to enact legal barriers to contraceptive use. They obviously pose a threat, but I feel like the battle lines are sufficiently well-fortified on that particular debate. What I find most interesting is Belle's description of how her upbringing in a conservative, Asian-American home impacted her autonomy and accessibility on these counts.
I was a campus feminist. But I was (am) also an Asian-American woman, raised in a very strict Asian household with a domineering father. I was forbidden to socialize with men, much less date--even after I turned 18, even after I entered college. I lived at home during college, and it was easy for them to control my social life--and I had enough disinclination to hurt my parents that I for the most part obeyed their draconian rules. But I was not always so inclined to follow the rules, and despite their best efforts, I managed to date secretly, seriously my college sweetheart for three years. Despite my own "abstinence only" education and strict moral upbringing, I, like so many other young men and women, disobeyed and disregarded the rules. It happens. It has always been, and it will always be that young people will, despite your best efforts to guide them, make "mistakes," ignore your teachings, and find their own path in life--right or wrong. I'm glad that though I did stray from the path of my fathers, I was able to guide myself, and protect myself--because the teachings I abandoned were no long applicable, and could no longer protect me on this new autonomous path. I am glad that because I was able to protect myself, I could keep my private life private, and my body my own business. I am glad that I never had to face the consequences of my father finding out about my "betrayal" -- because I would have surely suffered at his hands, and I would have surely feared for my life. The pressures of growing up are enough without being denied the information, tools, and means with which to guide and protect ourselves as we make our own life choices. Never forget that it is your life, and your body. And though I am not an extreme moral relativist, I do believe that with regard to your body and heart, you should be your own moral guide. And never forget how much all of this "debate" is pure sexual politics, designed to rob you of that autonomy.

These attitudes are not as uncommon as many suspect. Even in my liberal Washington suburb, I had a friend (half-Dutch, half-Japanese) who was forbidden by her parents to socialize with boys at all--even platonically. This led to some amusing/tense moments when she did do stuff with male friends (she went on a "beach week" trip with our whole high school crew--girls and guys--that she said was girls only. This was slightly more difficult to pull off since I was helping plan the transportation part of the trip). But while it was something I and her primarily joked about in school, it really was no laughing matter when they'd confine her to her room because she dared talk to me over AIM, or withdrew her from her college because she refused to consent to an arranged marriage (!).

All of this reminds me of a piece that I read from Kimberle Crenshaw in for my Feminist Theory class in the fall (it was excerpted in a book I don't have with me anymore, but it might have been from Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, 1989 U. Chi. L.F., 139-67). It's not that no White women have domineering fathers. It's that particular cultural expectations can make certain strategies (on the sexual health issue and others) that work fine for one ethnic group fail utterly for another. A battered woman's shelter, for example, does little to help a woman who is primarily confined to the home and who has no clue how to navigate the outside world without escort. Abuse hotlines assume that the abused women can use the phone unsupervised. Many crucial issues relating to sexual health assume that the participant is sufficiently autonomous to disobey strict orders from her parents; this can be unrealistic given certain socialization techniques. It's really easy to say that any girl who can't show the requisite autonomy to learn about sexual health isn't mature enough to be engaging in sexual activity in the first place. That may be true to an extent, but that cut both ways--if we're going to demand social autonomy as a precondition for engaging in these activities, then we can't act all shocked and horrified when young women do strike out on their own and try and break free of the traditional constraints their parents place upon them. I'd go further: If social autonomy is our standard, then I (ala Bruce Ackerman) think society has a positive obligation to help provide the tools and information necessary for women to develop independent judgments on issues of sexual health and morality, regardless of what their parents think (it goes without saying that sexual abstinence and chastity are perfectly valid choices, so long as they are made independently and not by social fiat). And since the barriers which prevent the full assertion of autonomous judgment vary from person to person and cultural background to cultural background, this quest will unquestionably require a plurality of techniques to respond to particular situations.

I should note that Belle's piece was cross-posted onto Feminist Law Professors, where she is visiting. I always figured that visiting blogging stints are kind of like visiting professorships--a chance to get some heightened exposure at a more prestigious institution, and perhaps (if you're lucky) a bit of a look-see for a permanent hiring. But even if that's not the case, it's a good sign that a bigger fish in the pond is reading and enjoying your work. So congratulations, Belle!

1 comment:

Belle Lettre said...

Thanks for the very kind and sympathetic words. It is a strange thing to be so securely a part of mainstream society--but also cut off from its values and freedoms. It's a strange sort of science fiction--the number of women who walk among you, who go to school with you, or work with you--but are not like you in your ability to live what you consider to be a normal life with personal autonomy. But I am glad that there are those, like you, who see us rather than seeing past us.