Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Patriarchy, sexism, homophobia

[Prefatory note: This piece is long and sometimes abstruse. It may be helpful if I state its main theses here.

1) There is no necessary connection betwen patriarchy and homophilia/homophobia. Sometimes patriarchy has fostered same-sex relations; sometimes it has discouraged them. In and of itself, discarding patriarchy--assuming that that is possible--would not rid us of homophobia.

2) Historical and comparative studies suggest that there is no viable alternative to patriarchy. Matriarchy, often hailed as the answer, cannot be demonstrated ever to have existed.

Now here is the essay.]



“Patriarchy begat sexism, then sexism begat homophobia.”

That is the short version of a widely circulated meme. The longer version is the one I quoted when I discussed the Gay Liberation Front two postings ago: “GLF believed that the oppression of lesbians and gay men sprang from ‘patriarchy’ (the belief that men should/must dominate women). Patriarchy gave birth to ‘sexism,’ the attitude that people could be treated differently because of their gender. Sexism led directly to homophobia, the irrational fear and disgust straight people had for individuals whose sexual variation was rooted in same-sex attraction and sexual practice.”

This triple sequence, first proffered in the late ‘sixties, retains much appeal among advocates for social change. For one thing, it seems to be rooted in experience. Despite considerable societal advance, women and gay people still face discrimination. Heterosexual men dominate the higher strata of government and business. Why is this unequal system continuing? The answer, we are told, is patriarchy. Once we dismantle patriarchy, replacing it with equality--or better yet, matriarchy--life will be better for all of us.

But will it? I have already seen enough evidence of homophobia among heterosexual women to wonder whether the new utopian matriarchal regime would end up repressing gay men. Their seeming indifference to women would be a serious fault. In all likelihood, the new dispensation would dictate that we at least become bisexuals.

What then is the rationale of the three terms patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia?

Understanding the first requires some background, for the concept of patriarchy must be examined in tandem with its purported opposite: matriarchy. In a nutshell, Matriarchy (or gynecocracy) refers to a gynecocentric form of society, in which the leading role is taken by the women and especially by the mothers of a community.

Despite much searching, there are no known societies. past or present that are unambiguously matriarchal, Some defenders of the concept point to of attested matrilinear, matrilocal and avunculocal societies, especially among indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa, such as those of the Minangkabau, Mosuo or Tuareg.

Strongly matrilocal societies sometimes are referred to as matrifocal, and there is some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy.

All this is something of a red herring, for despite the terminological similarity, these societies are generally dominated by male figures. Some situations may be momentarily puzzling. However, even in patriarchical systems of male-preference primogeniture there may occasionally be queens regnant, as in the case of Elizabeth I of England or Victoria of the United Kingdom--not to forget female prime ministers, such as Margaret Thatcher and Gold Meir.

In nineteenth-century scholarship, the hypothesis of matriarchy dominating an early stage of human development--now mostly lost in prehistory, with the exception of some "primitive" societies--enjoyed popularity. The notion survived into the twentieth century and was notably advanced in the context of feminism and especially second-wave feminism. Feminist authors adhering to the Modern Matriarchal Studies school of thought consider any non-patriarchic form of society as falling within their purview, including all examples of matrilineality, matrilocality and avunculism. Others redefine matriarchy as any system in which men and women are equal. Clearly these are attempts to salvage a shaky concept.

Even if matriarchy has never existed, it might still come into existence at some future date. If such a prospect were to loom it would be well to examine the specific details of the proposed social system, for past practice, even in remote prehistory offers no guidance.

The controversy surrounding prehistoric or "primal" matriarchy began in response to the 1861 German-language book by Johann Jakob Bachofen, Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World. A Swiss classical scholar, Bachofen regarded matriarchy as a primitive stage of social evolution that must inevitably yield to the more advanced system of patriarchy, a point elided by many latter-day matriarchal enthusiasts.

Several generations of ethnologists and popular writers have taken their cue from the Swiss scholar’s pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following him and Jane Ellen Harrison a number of scholars, usually arguing from myths or oral traditions, together with examination of Neolithic female cult-figures, have posited that many ancient societies might have been matriarchal, or even, that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures known to us from the historical record.

Beginning in the 1970s these ideas were taken up by popular writers of second-wave feminism and, expanded with the speculations of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray on witchcraft, by the Goddess movement, feminist Wicca, as well as work by Elizabeth Gould Davis, Riane Eisler, and Merlin Stone. All this speculation, it seems, lies outside the boundaries of scholarship.

In recent decades most scholars have concluded that there are no societies that are matriarchal in the strong sense that most (if not all) societies are patriarchal. Joan Bamberger in her 1974 The Myth of Matriarchy argued that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated. Anthropologist Donald Brown's 1991 list of "human cultural universals" (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs),

The concept of a matriarchal golden age in the Neolithic has been relegated to the category of feminist wishful thinking in Steven Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Why Men Rule, 1973; more recently by Philip G. Davis' Goddess Unmasked, 1998; and by Cynthia Eller, professor at Montclair State University, in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 2000. According to Eller, the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern Europe cultures that she asserts, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchal suggested by Gimbutas and the poet Robert Graves. She asserts that in "actually documented primitive societies" of recent (historical) times, paternity is never ignored and that the sacred status of goddesses does not automatically increase female social status, and believes that this affirms that utopian matriarchy is simply an inversion of antifeminism. The feminist scenarios of Neolithic matriarchy have been called into question and have been deemphasized in third-wave feminism.

In the original sense, patriarchy is the structuring of family units based on the man, as father figure, having primary authority over the rest of the family members. This idea goes back to the Roman concept of patria potestas. Patriarchy also refers to the role of men in society more generally where men take primary responsibility over the welfare of the community as a whole. This authority often includes acting as the dominant figures in social, economic, and political procedures, including serving as representatives via public office.

Although patriarchy has been the dominant mode of social organization throughout history, advanced industrial societies have sought to mitigate the worst excesses of the system, by moving towards, though not attaining an egalitarian balance. This trend has given heart to modern feminists who denounce patriarchy in all its forms as an unjust social system that is oppressive to women. The women's rights movement of the early twentieth century (also known as first-wave feminism) sought to bring political equality to women by giving them to right to vote and hold public office. In the 1960s and 70s, second-wave feminism addressed issues of social and economic inequality. This period also saw the rise of feminist theory which brought criticism of patriarchy into academic contexts. These theoreticians have sought to reorient the discussion by claiming that patriarchy is primarily a matter of gender and the nuclear family, gender and public office, and of female-male relationships in general.

So much then for patriarchy and its much-discussed phantom twin, matriarchy.

The term sexism was coined in the mid-twentieth century, when it was modeled on racism. Somewhat confusingly, the term does not refer to a preoccupation with sexual relations in the biological sense, but to the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other. It can also serve to designate hatred of, or prejudice towards, either sex as a whole (see misogyny and misandry), or the application of stereotypes of masculinity in relation to men, or of femininity in relation to women. It is also called male and female chauvinism, though this expression, derived from Soviet Marxism, is now dated. Those who are committed to the concept tend to hold that historically and across many cultures, sexism has resulted in the subjugation of women to men.

As a political slogan sexism was largely aimed at attitudes found among insensitive, self-aggrandizing men. Unless they allied themselves with these men, women were considered incapable of sexism.

After all this discussion, we return to the primary question. How much can homophobia be ascribed to patriarchy and sexism? And if we get rid of these two malign influences, does it follow that will homophobia disappear? At first sight it would seem so, for this change seems to be the corollary of the basic thesis “patriarchy begat sexism, and then sexism begat homophobia.”

First, it must be noted that some societies which were intensely male dominated (“patriarchal” to the n-th degree) were also societies in which male homosexuality flourished. Three examples are ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and the traditional Japan of the samurai. Patrriarchy does not inevitably spell homophobia, and may in fact foster homophilia. Our patriarchy, suffused with Judeo-Christian taboos, is another matter.

Moreover, as we know it homophobia has no single root cause, but is conditioned by a number of motifs. This multicausality is regrettable, accounting for the difficulty of eliminating the prejudice, but it is real all the same.

Some homophobic motifs stem from the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which arose under patriarchy. Motifs that have been traditionally adduced for the prohibition are the Sodom story, the privileging of pronatalism, and the view that homosexual conduct is unnatural. The last view, voiced by Paul in Romans 1:26-27, was actually purloined from Greek thought, though given a different focus. In its turn the idea of the unnatural entered into the Natural Law tradition, a Stoic invention commandeered by medieval theologians.
Indirectly, these religious prohibitions stem from patriarchy, as they are products of the Abrahamic religions. As noted, however, Abrahamic patriarchy is only one variety.

There are a number of quite different themes in the disparagement of homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. These include scientific or pseudo-scientific rationales embraced under such notions as anomaly, abnormality, and perversion, none of which has a religious pedigree.

The long and short of the matter is this. We can in principle get rid of the elements in the large complex of homophobic motifs that are of patriarchal-religious origin. That is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Having done that (assuming that we can) we still will not be finished with homophobia, which in modern times has increasingly adopted a secularist face.

As far as patriarchy goes, we have learned from historical and comparative studies that there is no simple way of trading it in for something else. That something else, matriarchy, has never existed, and is unlikely to do so in the future. Our task is to mitigate patriarchy, making it more fair and humane. Like capitalism patriarchy is going to be with us for a long time.

Homophobia stems from a different set of variables. Sometime homosexuality has flourished under patriarchy, sometimes not. Our task is to address this issue directly, and not to lull ourselves by the belief that it can be dealt with by tackling another issue altogether.

UPDATE (July 5). I have been told that that the patriarchy-is-the-culprit gambit I discussed above is now old news, and that few subscribe to it nowadays. Yet other responses that have come in private emails show that the view is alive and well.

I should note that there is a variant of this view indicting capitalism, patriarchy's equally equal twin, as the source of sex negativism, including antihomosexual attitudes. This notion has just been revived in a book published last month. Sherry Wolf, a self-identifed socialist, has come forward with her Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LBGT Liberation. Seeking to identify the roots of sexual repression, she addresses the complementary construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and the pervasive dichotomization of human sexual experience that has supposedly developed therefrom. Guess what? It is capitalism that creates this dichotomy.

How then does Wolf explain the sexual repression that has been rife in those nations that called themselves socialist? First, she repeats the myth that immediately after the Russian Revolution of October 1917 all restrictions on sexual freedom disappeared. Somehow, though, a "counterrevolution" ensued. leading to Stalinism. She then attributes the repression of gay men and lesbians in Cuba and China to the "essentially Stalinist nature" of those regimes. If Soviet socialism was so beneficial, how could it have been so easily taken over by Stalinists, who then replicated their success elsewhere?

In view of the dismal record under "actually existing socialism," it is not suprising that most gay men and lesbians have looked elsewhere for a political understanding of their situation. At the same time, the phenomenon of identity-based politics gained ground among many US activists. Most gay organizations--quite sensibly in my view--decided to focus on their own issues, which were and are very serious, instead of pursuing a long-discredited popular front strategy. Wolf, however, sees this targeted approach as a betrayal. She clings to her mantra that it is under capitalism that the distinctions and classifications of sexuality have flourished and have been commadeered as a tool by the ruling class. Consequently, it is only by ending the capitalist economy that true sexual liberation can come.

Enough of this balderdash. The jury is in about socialism and sexuality. There is little to be proud of in this connection, and a healthy skepticism is mandatory. One wonders how individuals like Wolf can continue to recycle a farrago of arguments that is full of holes.

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