Wednesday, 3 April 2013

"Rebranded" sexism? Did the NUT quote Pope Paul VI?

One of the headlines of the teachers union conferences over the Easter period has been an expression of concern at the sexualisation of women and girls: Teachers attack "rebranded" sexism (and see the first sentence, or strapline, "Teachers are warning that young people are being damaged by an over-sexualised culture"). When a closer look is taken at the motions actually proposed for debate, the headline and strapline are not entirely as they appear. The following is part of the motion as proposed at the NUT conference. It is motion 48, and the full motion, along with the amendments put forward, can be found in the final agenda document at this page on the NUT website.
Conference believes that despite the formal, legal, equality that women have won, sexism and inequality are still a huge factor in shaping women’s lives today, and those of the students we teach.  
As educators, teachers are in an ideal position to challenge sexism and gender stereotyping, helping girls and young women to feel confident and secure both academically and socially.  
Conference is deeply concerned about  
1. Attacks on the rights women have fought for, including maternity leave, and the right to make their own choice about abortion; and  
2. The rise of what has become commonly known as ‘raunch culture’ where the old sexism of the past has been rebranded by big business. In particular, the gains of the last 40 years in terms of women’s sexual liberation are being turned back on women and girls in commodified form. Playboy bunnies adorn children’s pencil cases, pole dancing is sold as an ‘empowering’ form of exercise, and the ‘beauty pageants’ of old have become a staple of student union life. The objectification of women’s bodies is playing an ever more horrifying role in society and is having a disastrous effect upon the self-image of girls and young women.
One can readily see an agenda in favour of abortion, the redefining of gender in purely sociological terms and in affirmation of "sexual liberation". Some of the proposed amendments made reference to the role of bisexual women.

The agenda of sexual liberation for women does not directly indicate a commodification of women themselves as sexual objects; seen in its wider context, that liberation has aspects such as justice in the workplace that are not of themselves sexual in nature. However, insofar as that liberation does have aspects that are immediately sexual in nature - and one cannot but see in the reference to "sexual liberation" in the NUT motion a reference to this sexual aspect - the freedom to engage in sexual activity does nevertheless indicate something about the nature of sexual activity on the part of women. They have a freedom to engage in sexual activity, without immediately apparent consequence, and that freedom is seen as the essence of the sexual dimension of their liberation.

There is a reflection of this in the way in which our culture sees men as agents in a freedom of sexual activity, be that with respect to women or with respect to other men.

But for both men and women, though in a much more prominent way for women, this availability to sexual activity that is expressed in our culture of its nature prompts an objectification of the person on the part of others with regard to sexual activity.

The question that has not been explicitly asked in the course of coverage of the teachers union debates is: what is the purpose of sexual activity? What are its ethically just motivations and what is the end towards which it is oriented?

If it is seen as pleasure pure and simple, then we all become sex objects for the other, with women preferentially the subjects of this objectification. There is an unrecognised contradiction in the NUT motion in that it appears to affirm the "sexual liberation" of women whilst condemning the bodily manifestation of the sexual objectification of persons that follows from it.

What does the Catholic mind set bring to this debate? In reverse temporal order, one might think of the purification of eros to become agape of which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est.  Love as the pleasure of sexual activity is to be absorbed into the higher love of gift of oneself to and for the other. On a more philosophical plane, one might think of the phenomenological articulation of the idea of integration of the bodily dimensions to the spiritual dimensions of the person indicated in The Acting Person of the future Pope John Paul II. And one might also return to Pope Paul VI who, in Humanae Vitae, indicated the principle of the unity between the ordering towards children and the motivation of affective love in the sexual act - and at the same time gave a prophetic warning of the consequences if that were not observed:
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Or, as the NUT motion put it, in what might almost be a paraphrase of the words of Paul VI:
The objectification of women’s bodies is playing an ever more horrifying role in society and is having a disastrous effect upon the self-image of girls and young women.

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