Masculine, Feminine, or Human?

by Robert Jensen

In a guest lecture about masculinity to a college class, I ask the students to generate two lists that might help clarify the concept:

For the first, I tell them to imagine themselves as parents whose 12-year-old son asks, “What does it mean to be a man?” The list I write on the board as they respond is not hard to predict: To be a man is to be strong, responsible, loving. Men provide for those around them and care for others. A man weathers tough times and doesn’t give up.

When that list is complete, I ask the women to observe while the men answer a second question: When you are in all-male spaces, such as the locker room or a night out with the guys, what do you say to each other about what it means to be a man? How do you define masculinity when there are no women present?

The students, both men and women, laugh nervously, knowing the second list will be different from the first. The men fumble a bit at first, as it becomes clear that one common way men define masculinity in practice is not through affirmative statements but negative ones — it’s about what a man isn’t, and what a real man isn’t is a woman or gay. In the vernacular: Don’t be a girl, a sissy, a fag. To be a man is to not be too much like a woman or to be gay, which is in large part about being too much like a woman.

From there, the second list expands to other descriptions: To be a man is to be a player, a guy who can attract women and get sex; someone who doesn’t take shit from people, who can stand down another guy if challenged, who doesn’t let anyone else get in his face. Some of the men say they have other ideas about masculinity but acknowledge that in most all-male spaces it’s difficult to discuss them.

When that process is over, I step back and ask the class to consider the meaning of the two lists. On the first list of the culturally endorsed definitions of masculinity, how many of those traits are unique to men? Are women ever strong? Should women be strong? Can women be just as responsible as men? Should women provide and care for others? I ask the students if anyone wants to make the argument that women are incapable of these things, or less capable than men.

There are no takers.

I point out the obvious: The list of traits that we claim to associate with being a man — the things we would feel comfortable telling a child to strive for — are in fact not distinctive characteristics of men but traits of human beings that we value, what we want all people to be. The list of understandings of masculinity that men routinely impose on each other is quite different. Here, being a man means not being a woman or gay, seeing relationships as fundamentally a contest for control, and viewing sex as the acquisition of pleasure from a woman.

I ask the class: If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding onto the concept so tightly? Why are we so committed to the notion that there are intellectual, emotional, and moral differences that are inherent, that come as a result of biological sex differences?

From there, I ask them also to think about what a similar exercise around femininity might reveal? How might the patterns be similar or different? If masculinity is a suspect category, it would seem so is femininity.

I have repeated this discussion in several classes over the past year, each time with the same result: Students are uncomfortable. That’s not surprising, given the reflexive way our culture accepts that masculinity and femininity are crucial and coherent categories. People may define the ideal characteristics of masculinity and femininity differently, but most people accept the categories themselves. What if that’s misguided? What if the positive attributes ascribed to “men” are simply positive human characteristics distributed without regard to gender, and the negative ones are the product of toxic patriarchal socialization?

Because the questions flow from their own observations and were not imposed by me, the discomfort is intensified. It’s difficult to shrug this off as just one more irrelevant exercise in abstract theory by a pontificating professor. Whatever the conclusion the students reach, the question is on the table in a way that’s difficult to dismiss.

It’s obvious that there are differences in the male and female human body, most obviously in reproductive organs and hormones. It is possible those differences are significant outside of reproduction, in terms of broader patterns concerning intellectual, emotional, and moral development. But given our limited knowledge about such complex questions, there isn’t much we can say about those differences. In the absence of definitive answers, I prefer to be cautious. After thousands of years of patriarchy in which men have defined themselves as superior to women in most aspects of life, leading to a claim that male dominance is natural and inevitable, we should be skeptical about claims about these allegedly inherent differences between men and women.

Human biology is pretty clear: People are born male or female, with a small percentage born intersexed. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear. And if we are to make sense of it in a fashion that is consistent with justice — that is, in a feminist context — then we would benefit from a critical evaluation of the categories themselves, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center


[editors note, another version of this with potentially triggering images is located at ]


There are people in life each of us just can’t stand. It just so happens that every white liberal I can’t stand picked Barack Obama as their choice in the Democratic primary. Who I do or don’t like probably doesn’t matter much to you, it shouldn’t, and what I’m about to say doesn’t have much — if anything — to do with Obama himself.

However, my dislike isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It has a very specific origin. I detest progressives who claim to be against unchecked capitalism, up until the issue of sexual exploitation is raised. These are the sort of people who mock Wal-Mart shoppers, McDonald’s workers, and other inferior beings in the liberal universe, only to turn around and celebrate the selling of sex as liberation itself. Some of these people are so far gone as to be in favor of human trafficking, if only because George W. Bush had the sense to be against it.

Pundits discussing the 2008 Democratic primary have demonstrated little understanding of power within our country. Their simplistic claim is that racists are refusing to vote for Barack Obama while sexists are giving a cold shoulder to Hillary Clinton. Such thinking is convenient. It’s also utterly egocentric. After all, if a person believes that white men in Kentucky are especially racist, that same person probably feels safe in assuming that those men are especially sexist, too. Only this time their racism won out over their sexism and they voted for Clinton. Could be. It’s impossible to say for sure.

Millions of chauvinist men have voted for Hillary Clinton over the past few months. Millions of white supremacists have happily cast their lot for Barack Obama. Perception comes down to who is writing the narrative. Painting the white men of Kentucky as rednecks brought little opposition in the world of liberal punditry. To be sure, some chaffed at the suggestion, and others warned that it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy come November, but no one posed a similar question that day about the white men of Portland, Oregon. Were they all sexist for voting for Obama?

Such thinking is ridiculous. Those men assuredly have white women in their lives. But no one stopped to think about how they treat the women in their lives. Portland, the same city where Barack Obama drew his now legendary crowd of 75,000, also claims to have the highest number of strip clubs per capita in our nation.

I’m not suggesting a direct correlation. On the other hand, there is a cultural difference between the average town in West Virginia and Portland, Oregon. These differences led to wildly divergent voting patterns — even among the same general demographics. Some writers have declared it cappuccino or latte voters vs. coffee voters. There is some truth to that.

I believe that attitudes about prostitution and pornography are also significant markers along that same cultural divide. Barack Obama became the porn candidate. I’m not speaking of direct industry support. The sex business itself was evenly split between Obama and Clinton after it became clear that Dennis Kucinich, a friend of Larry Flynt, had no future in the race. Instead, I’m speaking of a nation that lives within a pornographic and runaway-capitalist ethos. Young people, especially, have never known any other culture. This way of life was perfectly suited for the Obama brand that David Axelrod would create.

There’s over 300 million different ways to be a sexist and a racist in our society. Yes, I’m counting our entire population there. Larry Flynt wants us to believe that he was shot and paralyzed by a racist who was inflamed by the interracial pornography published in Hustler. Yet the fact that “interracial” itself is a commoditized genre of pornography, with its own iconography and rules, is nothing but racist. There is no hero in Flynt’s story: it was just one kind of racist shooting another kind of racist.

If the people of West Virginia are racist in one way, perhaps Portland’s crowd of 75,000 was racist in another. I’m not calling them out as individuals (just as I don’t think arguments for West Virginians as abject or even noteworthy racists were substantiated), nor am I accusing them of voting under the duress of “white guilt.” Instead, I only wish to speak to a larger issue in our culture.

Early in the primary, certain clever individuals invoked the “bros before hos” mantra. While the slogan was widely denounced as sexist — though not universally, sadly — the racist nature of how whites manufacture black masculinity went unremarked upon. Barack Obama didn’t ask to become a “bro,” nor did he ask to be a pimp, lording over his whore.

White men in our country pay big money to possess imagery that shows exactly that. We have entire industries dedicated to producing it; not just pornography but mainstream movies, music, and now even cable news networks. We want to see white women humiliated for their weakness, a fragility of our own invention. We use our racist notions about black masculinity, ever brutal and animalistic, to supply the ultimate episode of humiliation. We believe that humiliation is something women of all colors enjoy at the core of their being — that masochism is written into their genetic code.

The pornographic industry can’t admit that’s what they sell. They’ll say all of that is just in my head, that I’m the one with the problem. They’ll say that they’re breaking down barriers. They’ll say that they’re freeing love from bondage. If that were true, many of Barack Obama’s fans wouldn’t have cheered (if only on the internet) when they thought he was giving the finger to Hillary Clinton in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Yes, of course the official explanation was that such a claim is absurd. It unequivocally is. Yet there were people who wanted to believe it, not because they needed another reason to hate Obama, but because they were excited that their pimp finally gave his white-bitch ho what she had coming.

White males are the authors of both black masculinity and white femininity. Both are fictions. Because we own and control their legacy, we are better equipped to take on either part if we choose. Not only is it far easier for a male in drag to mimic a supermodel on a catwalk than the average woman (the odds of being six-feet tall are highly in our favor), it’s easier for us to be “black,” too. There are no repercussions, no institutional racism, just the fun in reveling in someone else’s oppression.

Nothing excites a white man more these days than saying the word pimp. There’s no higher high. Watch us when we say it. Watch our eyes twinkle. Pimp hands, pimped out cars (and even tricked out trucks for rednecks), pimp and ho parties, it never stops: “pimp” is a politically correct way to distill the essence of the N-word into a product that white men can embrace for our own amusement.

White men are the worst imaginable sort of n****rs in our own minds. We revel in the idea and know no greater joy. We want to possess that elite form of unrepentant masculinity, to be a monster among monsters, and yet walk away from it unscathed. We can get our pimp on and then safely go back to being just another guy in the crowd.

Making Barack Obama into a pimp, a cooler than life mythic figure, absolves us of that. In that way, he’s the ultimate white man on the stage, our subconscious belief in our own masculinity. This is a criminal act on our part.

Many progressive African Americans are skeptical of Barack Obama given his support by white men. They reckon that the support is owed to his post-racial politics and his rejection of Black Nationalism. That is likely true. I would add that there’s a sexist reason for that support, and it’s not just sexism against Hillary Clinton, but Obama himself. White men treat him as if he were our id: his cool, distant superiority is our own masculinity at play.

If there’s a direct link between whites who are favorable towards pornography and their support for Barack Obama, I certainly can’t prove it. I do, however, think that it’s a component — and a significant one — of the cultural difference between the whites who embraced him and those who campaigned for his rival, Hillary Clinton.

By all rights, I’m a member of the young, hip, highly educated creative-class, demographics that all but worship Obama. Going into the primary, I had no great love for Clinton, even though she is my senator; indeed, her reinventing herself as a New Yorker was something I loathed. I had planned from the start to vote for Cynthia McKinney. As the campaign wore on, however, a strange realization came over me:

I’ve been writing for several years about sexual exploitation. Because of that, I don’t get to feel young. I don’t get to feel hip. I don’t get to feel especially educated or creative. I’ve been told time and time again that I’m not part of that in-crowd, that my beliefs aren’t part of an avant-garde that views making a sandwich as slavery and performing sex acts with strangers as an art form.

The Nation, the most elite of the progressive magazines, only stopped printing advertisements for sex tourism a short time ago. While activists won out and the ads were removed, it’s abundantly clear from the content The Nation produces and the writers they employ that they still see the raping of children as a matter of free speech. They were also in the tank for Obama.

As were all of the celebrated white liberal blogs: places like The Daily Kos where there have already been several mass exoduses of women over near-pornographic ads. The blogs weren’t just for Obama, they were rabidly against Clinton, causing yet another wave to leave. This hasn’t caused much concern for those men as there will always be more women, one generation of them after the next, to take their place. Everyone wants to be where the power is, after all.

Even feminists, the young, hip, white ones who receive the most attention from those men, were more likely to support Obama than Clinton. Those are the feminists who are also most likely to be favorable towards prostitution and pornography: they don’t have much of a choice if they want to remain young and hip.

A popular feminist blog,, was sold by its creator to a marketer of hardcore pornography. One of the websites it currently advertises depicts Hispanic women performing sex acts on immigration officials to avoid being deported. While many of the feminists abandoned blogging at the website after the sale, some stayed. It’s an Obama stronghold.

As month after month passed in the primary, I became aware that I felt a certain affinity for Hillary Clinton supporters. I felt that I was part of their world, if not exactly by choice: after all, who would choose to be old, unhip, uneducated, and non-creative? By extension, I began to care about Clinton too, something that surprised me immensely. As one of the “ugly” people, she represented me on the public stage.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that every Barack Obama supporter is a porn fiend. Many of the most misogynist rapists in our country back Hillary Clinton; I still count her husband as one of them. There’s 300 million ways to be a sexist, after all. But by using pornography as a lens, it became clear to me that there was a rather stark divide among whites in our country, with one side believing that they were part of Obama’s world, while the other remained part of Clinton’s.

There are an infinite number of other lenses though that can bear witness to the same division. Not all of them are nefarious (cappuccino vs. coffee), and of those that are, neither coalition is without fault. (Although both, I’m sure, would prefer to blame the libertarians in our midst for any excesses, a too convenient theory I don’t find particularly convincing.) In listening to various discussions, the language and the imagery I saw revealed an immense amount of hatred for both candidates, even if the authors of it preferred one.

I do think it’s a salient point that their preference was almost always a black man over a white woman. However, Obama’s dominance in this imagery was not his own: he was a surrogate, just as the performers in interracial porn are proxies for the white males who are running the show, the business, and ultimately the country. It would be remiss to make a one-to-one comparison to Obama’s role in that imagery to his role as a statesman. It would be equally negligent to imagine that an entire culture of violence and pornography holds no sway over our presidency.

A videogame came with a vibrating attachment of some sort: it didn’t take long before someone went with the obvious, writing in lurid detail about her experiences with the device in a variety of ways not mentioned in the game’s instruction manual. The review put the website Game Girl Advance on the map.

Of course, being “on the map,” did much more for the careers and popularity of the men associated with the website than it did for the women — the ones who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the “girl” themed project.

These self-inflicted Pink Ghettos are sprouting up all over the internet. While the market advantages of female solidarity (getting the site more traffic than it would receive if forced to compete with other gender neutral sites purely on content) are manifold, it is men who reap the real rewards.

Not only do women split off into their own separate spaces, meaning there’s less of a compelling need to hire them on the big-time male publications, joining up at a Pink site is a great way for a starting or struggling man to improve his own career: It’s a way to be a big blue fish in a small pink pond.

It’s ironic that the website for Shakespeare’s Sister (referencing a point by Virginia Woolf that if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister, patriarchy would prevent her from reaching the same success) is now Shakesville, with more men involved than women.

Barry Deutsch, who used women for credibility to build his into one of the most popular feminist sites on the internet (before he sold it to racist pornographers), once published his comics at Girlamatic. By going with a “pink” publishing group, he was able to both stand out and improve his authority as a feminist speaker. He was able to turn that authority into hard cash when he needed it, in a way that none of the female bloggers who worked for him could.

Bookslut works similarly for the many men involved. As Stephanie Cleveland writes in her essay, “Why I’ll Never be a Bookslut,” it’s men who benefit the most. They aren’t required to sexualize themselves to be “sluts” any more than the men of Game Girl Advance had to: it’s their female peers that pay the price.

Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut by Stephanie Cleveland

Whenever I hear the word slut, part of me feels like I’m twelve years old, standing in a Winn Dixie parking lot. That’s how old I was and where I was, the first time a man ever called me slut. My mother and I had driven into town from our home in rural Georgia, to buy groceries, and when we left the store, Mama, always in a hurry to get home and cook dinner for my Dad and me, was halfway to the car before I’d even made it past the exit row of shopping carts.

I’d just started sixth grade, and I loved daydreaming, writing songs and stories in my head. Words were comforting distractions from the awkwardness of my body. Somehow or other, things had changed over the summer, and by the time I started school I already wore a C cup. My new bra size won me lots of unwanted teasing from boys at school, and lots of unwanted groping from boys on the bus ride home, but on that day in the parking lot, although I’d been careful to wear a turtleneck that covered the entire top half of my body, a middle-aged man with tan, leathery skin I can still picture noticed me walking to the car. I tried to ignore him, but the man kept leering at me.

As I walked past, I could hear him whisper something under his breath. After a few seconds, I realized he’d said, “Nice tits.” It was the first time anybody had ever called my breasts tits, and I remember hating the sharp, ugly sound of that word. I stopped to face the man. Now that he had my attention, he took his opportunity to snarl another insult, this time calling me little slut. His assessment made me feel confused and scared, so I put my head down and kept walking. Once I reached my mother and the car, I looked back. The man winked, turned and strolled into Winn Dixie, and was gone.

In middle school, I turned to books and daydreaming, and reading more and more, and eventually started writing poetry. I wrote poems, not because I wanted to be called slut again (I didn’t particularly want to make anybody a slut for my own words either). Instead, I remember just wanting to get as far away from sexist language as I possibly could. I wanted a place where men couldn’t define me using words like slut. In fact, I wanted to change the ways men talked about women altogether. Most especially, I wanted to change how men talked about sex with us.

I hated the definition of sex I was learning in school during health class, and at home, from my father’s pornography. What I’d learned from both was, that sex happened when a man penetrated a woman, inserted his penis in her vagina, mouth, or anus, until he came, and in that order, man-does-to-woman, subject-verb-object. The language men had for fucking reflected the way most men had sex, and I hated both the language and the fucking.

By the time I was fourteen, I was very familiar with most of the slang words boys at my school used to talk about women. My own view of my body had become so colonized, I even thought of myself using their words — pussy, cunt, boobs, tits, piece of ass. All these words made me feel humiliated. They were clearly insults, and I think I already suspected something about how hateful words could never really be emptied of their original vitriol. I felt reclaiming men’s sexist language was not my responsibility, not my job as a female writer. Instead, I wanted a different language, one that would allow me to leave sexist words behind.

By the time I got to eighth grade, I’d begun to want a certain kind of literary freedom, one that’s still largely forbidden to girls and women authors. I wanted the freedom to write about not wanting to be fucked, maybe not wanting sex at all. If I did write about sex, the only kind I wanted was a specific kind, a kind I barely even had a language for, sex that meant tenderness and equality, making love, through gentleness, human touch without fear of being expected to submit to anybody, without learning to like men being dominant. This was the kind of sex that was forbidden to me, all the sex male-supremacist literature treated as feminine and therefore inferior, all the sex my Dad’s pornography left out. I didn’t want to adopt men’s dick-centered word for sex, fucking. I didn’t want to fuck or be fucked, or be called slut.

Writing my resistance to these words and ideas down on paper seemed like revolutionary acts to me. In short, I wanted to be able to want without being called slut for it, and I ultimately hoped all the hate words men had invented for me as a female human being could get out of my writing and my life. As a twenty seven year old feminist poet, I still want all those things.

But talking with other men and women poets, maybe especially those working in academia, I feel incredibly alone in refusing to accept words like slut. In New York, poets have laughed, yelled, ignored me, called me stupid and simple-minded whenever I’ve mentioned my hatred for words like slut. I used to hear feminists agreeing that there was no point in learning to accept men’s sexist language, and I still hear women activists and feminists in my community voice that same dissatisfaction — working class women who are not at all sheltered, who, sadly, know all too well what it’s like to have words like slut used against you during an assault.

Over the past five or ten years, something seems to have shifted among feminist poets and writers however. There’s a different way of practicing feminism, one that, to me, feels elitist and false. One that claims to be avant-garde in its politics, but often chastises women for being too critical of traditional, macho ways of thinking and writing about women. Particularly, I think, this new form of feminism discourages women from taking a radical approach to language. We are told not to remember pain sexist language may have caused us in the past, and are forbidden to ask for uncompromised change — for responsibility — in the ways poets and writers write about women and sex. Certainly we are forbidden to ask that some words like slut, not be used anymore.

Now, if a woman becomes upset over the word slut, especially in an academic setting, it’s not at all uncommon for her to be accused of not having an appropriate grasp of irony, not being sexually liberated, of thinking of language in an old-fashioned way, or turning herself into a victim. She may be accused of not knowing enough about postmodernism or third wave feminist theory to have anything valuable to say. I feel as though many women writers have decided it’s just easier to adopt men’s language, to learn to live with it, to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve reclaimed it, rather than fighting for something radically different. I think, in this context of extreme compromise, magazines like Bookslut happen.

I first heard about Bookslut last summer, after traveling to Chicago where I’d been invited to read my poetry at a launch party for Another Chicago Magazine. When, during conversation before the reading, one poet mentioned the online lit magazine, I was struck by how none of the other poets present seemed bothered by the idea of a woman’s passion for reading — her simply feeling joy over books and words — being used to identify her as a specific kind of slut, a bookslut.

Certainly as a feminist, I believe women are entitled to an egalitarian sexuality, (should we choose to be sexually active), one that goes along with our struggle for equality. But I also think there is an important difference between feeling pride and freedom about one’s sexual self, and allowing others to sexualize us in ways that ultimately reinforce male dominance. In Chicago, I found myself wondering, why are women writers and readers still persistently sexualized, even after decades of feminism?

Why do men still expect us to behave in certain ways, particularly when we attempt to be accepted as artists? In my experience as a poet, men seem most comfortable around women they perceive as sexy, bubbly, seductive and eager to have sex, women who may attempt to write as well, but who understand the importance of being attractive to men while doing it. Most of all, I wondered how women’s sexuality — or the male-supremacist version of it — could still be used to market almost everything in a consumption-obsessed America, including, it would now seem, literary magazines, without women writers even batting an eye?

It wasn’t until I was back in New York that I checked out Bookslut online, and got my first introduction to the magazine via the August issue. One of the first things I noticed was, despite its claim to be a magazine for “people” who love reading, and despite a few male editors flippantly (offensively?) proclaiming themselves “sluts” on the masthead, Bookslut features images of women in various states of undress, but no naked men.

The Bookslut logo is a cartoon of a female nude, lying horizontally, in the great tradition of reclining female nudes painted by male artists throughout history. Bookslut is hunched eagerly over her book, and the focal point of the cartoon is her ass. She has long wavy hair, perched atop her head in a pony tail. Her body looks thin, young, traditionally attractive. You can see the edge of her right breast jutting over the side of her rib cage perkily. On the Bookslut site, readers can buy pictures of this logo and different pinup style cartoons of women, on T-shirts, tote-bags, and other merchandise. Later that evening, after looking at Bookslut, I started thinking about Audre Lorde’s essay, Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power. In that essay, Lorde wrote:

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.

To me, the cartoons of women on Bookslut seemed plastic and trivial, like the fake depictions of female sexuality Lorde critiqued.

As a freshman in college, I remembered seeing a nude self-portrait visual artist Susan Hauptman created using charcoal and chalk pastel. Hauptman was my drawing teacher my second semester as an art major, and in person, she was small, only about 5’1.” But in her self-portrait, she stood over 7 feet tall, and when you approached it, you saw a naked woman, wearing no makeup, with all her pubic, underarm, and leg hair intact. The woman in the drawing literally loomed above you. She stared straight down at you. You did not approach this woman from behind, lying flat, with teased hair. Her hair was cut close to her head in a crew cut. She was human, powerful, intimidating, real, and yes, even sexual — but not on men’s terms, not trivial or plastic. She was a woman, a human being, like all women are in real life; she was not slut. I thought about how different this feminist drawing of a female nude was from the Bookslut logo.

I wondered too, if any woman who has ever been called slut, really believes in her heart that the word isn’t still first and foremost associated with women? A friend recently pointed out to me that, if a person wants to call a man slut, she often ends up saying male slut, even laughing at how comic the combination of those words “male” and “slut” sound together, the term has been so intimately connected with women for so long. Men are not called sluts, by and large, for having sex or being sexual — they’re just doing what men do. The slut mascot for Bookslut is a woman for a reason.

There’s not a cartoon of a young naked male body laid out for female readers to ogle, no male ass, inviting penetration. Women readers won’t get a peak at any exposed, perky testicles dangling between hairy thighs. Instead, below the Bookslut logo, a fully clothed real life portrait of Thomas Mallon started off the August issue. I have never met Thomas Mallon, and it seems unlikely he had anything to do with the layout of the magazine. But, I do think, if you have a cartoon of a naked woman called Bookslut, above a picture of a clothed man who writes books, the assumption is that she is his slut, a slut for his writing.

Postmodernists will probably argue all this is my personal, individual, unsophisticated interpretation of Bookslut, that, if other women writers and readers like being called slut, I should celebrate their choices, because anything any woman consents to in this patriarchal world is inherently feminist, right? I do not believe this is true. I think real agency for women, real feminist choices, involve resisting male dominance with everything we have in us, not doing exactly what dominant men demand.

I think it’s important as well not to assume women make our choices in a vacuum or a free world where we have equality. In my experience, it has certainly been easier to find support and praise from men poets and editors, if I’ve willingly adopted their language, whereas refusal to do so often makes men defensive and angry.

The existence of Bookslut means women who do not like the word slut, now have to hear it one more time, have to hear it used in a celebratory way, without critique, more times than we would otherwise. I have thankfully known a handful of poets who do still recognize the misogyny of words like slut. These poets would never use these words to talk about women, in much the same way they would never use racial slurs or other hate words. But now, those same poets end up saying, “So and so was reviewed in Bookslut,” and men have one more excuse to keep the image of women as sluts in their minds.

A male poet who has been reviewed on Bookslut can effectively consider the magazine’s founder Jessa Crispin, a slut for his book. He can, if he wants, begin thinking about other women readers of his in that same way as well, as his personal booksluts, metaphorically fucked by his every word. How on earth does this pass for sexual or intellectual liberation for women?

Andrea Dworkin wrote, “The pornographic conception of female power is fundamental to the anti-feminism of sexual-liberation movements in which unlimited sexual use of women by men is defined as freedom for both: she wants it; he responds; viola! The revolution.” Crispin’s choice to call herself a slut goes along with this male-supremacist version of sexual revolution — one which caters to men’s words, men’s desires, men’s construction of female sexuality, by giving men greater sexual access to women and greater freedom to think of us as fuck objects.

Bookslut fails, however, to address women’s inequality. It fails to offer a feminist, non-patriarchal vision of sex and women’s passion for reading and creating. Using women as sexualized commodity to sell literary magazines is not a feminist sexual revolution, and moreover, Cripsin’s choice to do that affects more women than just herself. Women who are not interested in reclaiming hate words now must deal with them more frequently in literary circles.

We may even need to explain to men, “I understand that woman over there says she’s okay with being called a bookslut, but I actually don’t like it, actually feel degraded and humiliated when you do it.” Then too, there is the fear one will be viewed as “sexually inhibited,” or “not fun enough” by male peers who like the idea of a bookslut — that is to say, if one refuses to accept men’s language, one may do the unforgivable and alienate men. Alienating men is risky for a woman writer, since writing, like any other field, is dominated by white men, and many of these men have the power to refuse to publish women’s words.

I am not claiming to speak about what every issue of Bookslut looks like, but in the August issue I read, most if not all of the featured poets and writers on the homepage were men. All these men were fully clothed. Images of naked or partially naked women in stereotypically gendered positions were the norm — a woman cartoon contorted and squeezed into a little box, her weight propped on one elbow, wearing pink lingerie and giving readers a wouldn’t you like to fuck me smirk, was one of the first images I noticed when I scrolled down. The woman had no body hair to speak of (no one even seems to notice the sexism of adult women being asked to remove all our pubic hair anymore), and she smiled capriciously, the way women are expected to when we are being seductive.

Once again, this cartoon was female — no cartoon of a man wearing frilly lingerie, sporting an erection over poetry. The worst photo was an advertisement for the Bookslut reading series — a poster featuring the names of authors, some of them women, and a real woman’s legs — thin, white, and so smooth they could be used for Nair commercials — spread apart across the left side of the photograph. This woman’s entire body was not shown, only her thighs and crotch. Her feet were propped sideways on a picnic table, and on the table between her spread legs, aligned directly with her vagina, stood a glass beer bottle.

I looked, but didn’t find any photos on the Bookslut site of men with their legs spread, glass bottles placed between them. There were no photos to suggest a male reader might feel somehow motivated by his passion for literature to fuck himself with glass. Apparently, only women-readers do that sort of thing.

These images are not new or empowering. They aren’t feminist, and they don’t have anything to do with good writing. They articulate instead, the tired, old idea that women are sexual masochists, which feminists critiqued in the sixties, seventies and eighties. The difference is, now sexual masochism for women is considered part of feminism. Female anger and outrage over being called slut have been labeled outdated, while acceptance of misogynist language is the popular position to take.

I do not mean to place all the blame on Jessa Crispin, or to act as though she could single handedly bring down the patriarchy if she stopped calling women booksluts. But I do believe the idea of reclaiming hate language is an ineffective strategy for gaining women’s equality. In philosophy, there is the theory of adaptive preferences, which states, if a person knows she is going to get treated a certain way, regardless of whether or not she likes or wants that treatment, then, in some ways, it behooves her to learn to want it.

Even after years of feminist struggle, US women still live in a country where every day three women are killed by our intimate partners, one in four is raped before she turns eighteen, and the only fields women earn more money in on average than men working in the same fields are modeling and prostitution. Men still see us as people to be fucked, still use words like slut to attack women in prostitution and pornography, in strip clubs, during domestic violence assaults, during rape, during street harassment — In this kind of political climate, no wonder many women decide to try and make the best of slut.

I am also not claiming that all men enjoy using words like slut. I am glad to have known a couple men who hate these words almost as much as I do. But many men and male poets I have talked with are resistant about giving up sexist language. I remember a poem in Tomaz Salamun’s Feast, a book I was required to read in college, that included the line, “I smell whores on the shoulders of soldiers.” Neither my male teacher, nor any of the male students in my class seemed bothered by that line. When I left college, I tried talking with a few male poet friends about it, but none of them saw a problem either. What does it mean that a male poet can, with impunity, call certain women “whores” in the 21st century, can even write what he thinks a “whore” smells like?

I had an argument with a close male poet friend last summer, trying to explain to him why I felt hurt when he wrote about female genitalia as cunt. He felt entitled to that word as a writer, despite its continued use as a term of hatred for women, and I couldn’t convince him men should rethink their use of words so intimately linked with women’s pain, pain that isn’t theirs to use.

I especially thought about men’s resistance to giving up sexist language last July, when a group of teenage boys assaulted me while I was running in Central Park. For whatever reason, the boys, who were playing baseball, started chasing after me. One of them, once he got close enough, swung the bat at my legs trying to knock me to the ground. When I swerved to avoid being hit, I felt a smack against the left side of my head. I realized the boys a little further away were throwing rocks at me. One boy yelled as he threw, “Fuck you, you motherfucking cunt!”

My head pounded. I felt pain in my mouth on the left side of my face. If the boys had been a little older, I might have been too scared not to keep running. But once I cleared the gates of the park, I turned around. I couldn’t stop hearing the words those boys had used at me. Simply because I was a woman, in their eyes, I was inferior, a cunt.

But inside myself, I was still a poet. Maybe that was why, more than anything else in that moment, I wanted a word I could use, a word that would hurt them as much as their word hurt me. Although I tried hard to come up with something, I wasn’t sure what I should have yelled — “Hey, haven’t you heard? Women reclaimed cunt , so it doesn’t hurt anymore”? The problem was, it still did. In that minute I realized how pointless trying to reclaim men’s sexist language really is.

Language has meaning and words have power based on the social realty those words are used in. It means something when men, who all live with some degree of privilege over women, use the same words to talk about our bodies and our sexuality in ways that are presumed to be sexy and fun, and then insult us with those same words during acts of violence.

Words like slut, whore and cunt are not about equality or sexual liberation for women; they aren’t really about poetry and women’s passion for reading either. Instead, these words are about misogyny, about continued respect for male dominance and dominant language. I would like to know other poets, both women and men, who feel a world where women don’t have to worry about being called cunt, slut, or whore anymore is possible, because these words no longer exist. I believe that world is possible and worth writing towards.

I would like to thank Amy at Feminist Reprise for conducting me to several sources on the anti-Recovered Memory phenomenon. One source worth reading is Mike Stanton at the Columbia Journalism Review.

A pointed excerpt from “U-turn on memory lane”:

Among journalists, perhaps the most relentless critic of the [False Memory Syndrome] foundation is Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star columnist. In 1993, she says, an Ontario couple, claiming to have been falsely accused, contacted her and asked her to write about their case.

Unconvinced, she declined, and eventually started writing instead about the foundation. She attacked its scientific claims and criticized the sensational media coverage. She described how a foundation scientific adviser, Harold Merskey, had testified that a woman accusing a doctor of sexual abuse in a civil case might in fact have been suffering from false memory syndrome. But the accused doctor himself had previously confessed to criminal charges of abusing her. Landsberg also challenged the credentials of other foundation advisers.

She noted that one founding adviser, Ralph Underwager, was forced to resign from the foundation’s board after he and his wife, Hollida Wakefield, who remains an adviser, gave an interview to a Dutch pedophilia magazine in which he was quoted as describing pedophilia as “an acceptable expression of God’s will for love.” Landsberg also wrote that another adviser, James Randi, a magician known as The Amazing Randi, had been involved in a lawsuit in which his opponent introduced a tape of sexually explicit telephone conversations Randi had with teenage boys.

Various other thoughts on Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men


FOX has a new show called New Amsterdam. It’s about an immortal homicide detective who solves crimes while experiencing flashbacks from days of yore. It’s a story that’s been done before and in far more entertaining ways. Somehow, FOX got the notion that receiving one’s immortality as a thank-you note from a Native American shaman is more “mainstream” than the vampires detectives and Scottish Highlanders that only achieved cult status. That they could think such a thing presents an interesting commentary on racial fetish.

It’s a terrible show.

Before I stopped watching it though, I viewed one episode that really brought home how powerful the “False Memory Syndrome” or “Anti-Recovered Memory” movement is and how successful they’ve been in their public relations campaign. They’re a front-page antidote for a problem that’s on the back-page, if it ever gets space at all.

The plot went something like this:

Immortal dude collars some shell-shocked veteran and gets him to confess to a murder he didn’t commit; immortal dude feels really bad about that and tries to make things right by finding the real killer.

The murder victim was a psychologist who once helped people recover memories but disavowed her work (In Pendergrast speak she’d be “scientifically” labeled as a “retractor”) after one patient accused someone of cooking a baby, something which clearly didn’t happen. She was writing a book slamming a former co-worker. He is another shrink in the recovered memory business who didn’t want to lose his patients, people he ripped from their “families of origin,” who are now loyal to him alone. Thus he kills her for threatening to upset his life. All of which, conveniently, ties thematically into the veteran who believed he did something he didn’t do because of an intense interrogation session.

This story shocked me because this is a show about a homicide detective: every week some act of violence has to happen, each more intricate and depraved than the last, in order to set the plot in motion. The characters live in a world of intense violence where every other person they meet is dripping evil.

How, in such a world, could one even suspect someone of inventing fake crimes? Life exists for crime!

And yet false allegations of abuse were presented as more horrific than the “real” violence depicted as entertainment: false allegations are never sexy; real violence, especially against women, is always sexy. The innocent-accused are always more innocent than the innocent victims of violence; naturally, the former are nearly always men.

Even a decade after the False Memory panic, a silly show about an immortal dude can still recycle it to scare viewers once again.

This is a legacy that DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson helped to sustain by dragging Mark Pendergrast into their book. 


Fred Viebahn writes in “Aviva’s World” (p. 100):

It’s hard to remember why I preferred a daughter over a son, and I would never allow a psycho-plumber to snake through my subconscious only to misinterpret the complexities of that wish. I think I was a pretty good son to my parents, so there was no denial and projecting going on, no fear of my own bad example. I can only speculate: as a boy, I often preferred the company of women. During family gatherings, when my father and my grandfathers and uncles played cards in the living room, my boy cousins had to drag me away from the women folk trading stories in the kitchen so that I would play soccer with them. Even now, half a century old, I frequently feel more comfortable chatting with women at social gatherings. End of speculation.

While Viebahn shows the characteristic hatred of psychology required for authors in Fathering Daughters, it’s significant that he confines such talk to the realm of personality, rather than politics.

As often as feminists write apologias that they’re not “man haters,” it’s interesting to note how freely and easily distrust of men comes to males. We might sometimes apologize for it, too, as Viebahn does, but we never really expect anyone to be surprised by it. It makes sense to fear men, to watch your back when amongst them, to prefer gatherings without them: males know this easily, females have had it bred and beaten out of them to the point where they often have to relearn the obvious.

Many pro-feminists have written passages similar to Viebahn. Typically, they go further, urging males to overcome such fear as it hurts women (who are burdened by us foisting our emotional lives on them alone) and results in other phenomena such as homophobia. I find such work, by John Stoltenberg and others, to be highly convincing — at times. Other times, I wonder if it’s possible for a male to be a separatist, avoiding men whenever possible, without placing undue burden on women or barging in on sisterhood. It might be possible. Or it might not.


Scott Russell Sanders, in “To Eva, on your Marriage,” writes about how his daughter’s birth made the “condition of women” more personal to him. “Statistics on rape, on poverty, on wife beating, on single mothers, on jobs and pay for women, became disturbing facts about the society in which my daughter would grow up” (p. 197).

His report is hardly novel. The belief that fathering daughters compels a man to feminism is a common one. It’s exactly for that reason that there’s so little skepticism of Dads and Daughters. Everyone feels safe in assuming that they’re natural feminist allies after their “Road to Damascus” experience of being charged with a baby girl.

What makes Sanders different is another realization that he proffers, how being heterosexual (in a way that might cause such a baby to arrive), never compelled him in that same way (p. 198):

Even falling in love with the woman who would become your mother had not inspired in me such troubled questioning, because she was brilliant in science, in music, in writing and speech; she was poised and confident; she was balanced on her own center. She had found a husband with plenty of flaws, but one who would never lay a hand on her except in love, never betray or desert her. To my bedazzled eyes, this Ruth McClure seemed to have emerged into womanhood unscathed. But you were just beginning. How would you fare?

He writes similarly, here:

I thought very little about gender as a child. I simply accepted what was around me as the way things were. Then, when I went to college, as I’ve written in “The Men We Carry in Our Minds,” I ran into women who had radically different notions about gender roles than anything I’d ever encountered. Trying to figure out why these women were so angry started me on a long, slow educational process. That process was accelerated through my long courtship of Ruth McClure. Ours was an epistolary romance. Living a thousand miles apart for five years before we got married, we exchanged hundreds of letters. Then after our daughter Eva was born, I became even more thoughtful about the fate of women. What barriers would she run into? How would she learn what it means to be female? Once our son Jesse was born, I had a burning personal reason to reflect on how the world defines maleness, as well. Then, when my father died, I realized that he had been confined and even tortured by inherited notions of masculinity.When I first recognized sex discrimination, I thought naively—as I did with racism—that people of good will should be able to talk about it openly and then grow beyond it. It shouldn’t be so hard to begin treating everybody fairly. Why shouldn’t discrimination go away in a few years? Now I realize the problems are more stubborn. We carry a lot of evolutionary baggage, including some deep biases linked to sex. Unless we acknowledge this biological inheritance, we’ll be trapped by it.

I am unsure of what he means by “evolutionary” and “biological inheritance.” Creative types, or at least those celebrated as such, can usually get away with being essentialists, whether by design or by accident; the rest of us generally need to learn to be precise with our speech, lest we be punished.

Still, the interview is certainly more nuanced than his chapter in Fathering Daughters, where his wife was some shining white beacon of effortless grace and perfection (not to mention where he appears to think he deserves special credit for not being a batterer). It seems that he either knew her rather poorly — to be unaware of her own struggle against sexism — or that some women are simply so wonderful that they couldn’t possibly inspire a mate to take up feminism.

Where does one sign up to date them? I’m sure demand is through the roof.

My intent isn’t to pick apart Scott Russell Sanders or his relationship, or even his status as a feminist ally (indeed, his chapter is one of the best in the anthology), but to use his admission to investigate another common trope:

“Beware those men who use feminism to get laid.”

People seem confident that impregnating a woman and raising a resulting female child can drive a man to become a feminist loyalist.

People seem equally confident (although not in Scott Russell Sanders case) that regularly fucking a feminist woman can inspire a man to take up the cause.

And yet thinking about feminism before those two steps is grounds for suspicion?

That’s probably the time when it would do the most good!


I don’t deal very much with adjectives in my writing; I seldom need or choose to describe people. That’s a copout in a way, as it lets me sidestep a problem that the contributors in Fathering Daughters didn’t seem to acknowledge they had: how do you write about your daughter’s appearance without falling into patriarchal patterns of speech? How do you counter the male gaze when it’s your own?

What words are appropriate? What words invariably place a girl in a police lineup of sorts, comparing and contrasting her with other girls and standards of acceptability? And what of those other girls — those spectral children, not your own — who are summoned to that lineup, what responsibility does a proud father have to them?

Gary Soto, in “Getting it Done,” describes his nearly adult daughter as “five foot even, a hundred and six shapely pounds, bright, kind and thoughtful, well read, and shy as a pony” (p. 119).

Mark Pendergrast presents the daughters who would accuse him of sexual abuse as being “exceptionally attractive, intelligent, creative, caring young women” (p. 153).

What shape are those pounds? What shape, out of many, is the incarnation of shape itself? Why does the physical always precede the internal, as if excellence begets excellence?

The white writers seem to pay special attention to the “differences” they find in their adopted and biracial (or even technically white) children.Philip Lopate writes of his daughter Lily’s delivery (p. 17):

The doctor passed the newborn to her mother for inspection. She was (I may say objectively) very pretty: like a little Eskimo or Mexican babe, with her mop of black hair and squiting eyes. Something definitely Third World about her.

I can’t speak for the Inuit, but most Mexicans I’ve met would disagree with his “Third World” assessment, whether out of nationalist pride or anger that an American would feel perfectly safe to make such a bizarre assertion about his child out of the blue, anticipating that his readers would reward him for it.

In “A Story for Ancient Moon,” Adam Schwartz tells of his trip to China to meet his adoptive daughter (p. 21):

Her eyes stared calmly back at the camera, a look so clear and knowing that she truly did have an ancient countenance. Her eyes were exactly like the “ancient, glittering eyes” of the Chinamen in Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli.”


Li Li told me that the shape of Annie’s eyes was considered very beautiful in China. I had actually heard the same comment from other Chinese women. Before we left for China to adopt Annie, I passed her picture around to my classes, and all the Chinese students remarked upon the beautiful shape of her eyes. Li Li explained that no woman in China would want to give up a daughter with such rare and beautiful eyes, and that no doubt the birth father gave the orders.

It is beyond me how such infinitely rare eyes could have been possessed by all of Yeat’s “Chinamen.”Samuel Shem (pen name of Stephen Bergman), also adopted a daughter from China. His chapter is called “A Prayer for Connection.” He writes (p. 39):

I sit in the balcony looking down at Katie in gymnastics class. Up here, distanced, it is suddenly as if I’m watching a group of five year olds whom I don’t know, Katie among them. She is the only Asian. I notice her trim, lithe body with long legs and not an ounce of fat, her coordination, her popping energy. I bring her back to being ours for a second, remembering how, after our being with her for the first several months, Caucasian babies’ eyes seemed strange to us, too round, foreign. Our world was china, Chinese, eyes shaped like teardrops on their sides, pupils as dark as history. We became a family of color. We felt the joy and encountered the racism.

His structural composition allows the perception that her thinness and coordination logically stems from her Asian status, the topic of each of the two sentences surrounding his brief mention of her talent. Where does that leave the girls standing around her, clumsy in comparison, lacking in ancient heritage? And what of Asian girls who don’t fit that model of diminutive grace?

And joy? Good grief.

It’s easy for me to pick apart all of these descriptions. After all, I’m not personally tasked with finding a solution to this problem; I can easily avoid it if I like.

I fault the contributors of Fathering Daughters not for failing to arrive at a solution, but for refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem. It’s hypocritical to blame the advertising industry for creating body image problems when a bunch of literary greats can’t even talk about their own daughters without objectifying them.

Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men Pedophiles?
edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson

Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997) is a significant book. Its date marks a historic moment in the fatherhood movement. It was published the same year that the Promise Keepers would reach their zenith (holding a rally that drew over one million men) and rapidly crumble. While the Keepers disintegrated, their energy sent out reverberations throughout the political spectrum. Fathering Daughters is a product of that energy.

Dads and Daughters, widely believed to be the most pro-feminist of the fatherhood groups, is also part of that energy. In light of that fact, it’s important to note that they’re now the only pro-feminist group that currently receives any funding or national attention. Dads and Daughters created their first website in 1999. At the time, Fathering Daughters was one of the few books they recommended and attempted to sell to their site’s viewers.

The book is currently recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their Head Start program. Or what’s left of the Head Start program after the Fatherhood Initiative, a corporate effort by Bush Administration cronies, decided to take it over. It was a bit of revenge for putting children — and by extension, their “bonbon eating” mothers — first.

If that weren’t enough, Fathering Daughters is also likely the preferred treatment on fatherhood by pedophiles throughout the world.

While that’s a bombastic beginning for a book review, it’s necessary to slow down a great deal to fully describe the complexities of the work. It’s not an easy volume to fully contextualize. So please bear with me as I backtrack a bit.

No one needs to consider me a pro-feminist of any sort. I’m not complaining: that’s exactly as it should be.

It’s an entirely different story for males who choose the privileges of matrimony and fatherhood though; so very much depends on their status as one of the good guys. Wives and daughters have an intense need to see their husbands and fathers as being the sort of men who do the right thing. For most of us in this world, myself included, being the sort — or merely being seen as the sort — tends to take precedence over actually doing the right thing. Still, no one has ever called me a feminist for picking up my socks every morning.

Seeing the different standards in place for men and their anti-sexist work has made me skeptical of the pro-feminist fatherhood movement: who can tell, precisely, where the Promise Keeper ends and the “Dads and Daughters” father begins?

Feminism has not yet overthrown the patriarchy but it has changed the role of daughters, female children, within it. This presents a paradox in that daughters are now much more useful to individual patriarchs, if not the system they uphold. Daughters have been transformed from chattel to perfectly acceptable vehicles for the transmission of the masculine ego beyond one’s own life expectancy.

Wanting the best for your daughter isn’t necessarily the mark of a feminist consciousness: even Dick Cheney loves his lesbian daughter. Because of that love, he’ll do whatever he can to make sure she can bloodily triumph over the daughters of his rivals.

While the pro-feminist side of the fatherhood movement can protest the advertising industry and celebrate Title IX, all worthy endeavors, it’s otherwise apolitical. Male privilege, like class and race based privileges, isn’t something you fight against for the benefit of your own daughter — it’s something you have to do for the benefit of other men’s daughters, your rivals. Doing so might even hurt your own daughter as she’s in many ways dependent upon your privilege. That’s a profoundly difficult thing to choose.

The absence of truly feminist politics in groups like Dads and Daughters hasn’t seemed to stop most of more prestigious pro-feminist writers from flocking to it. Men like Michael Kimmel and Jackson Katz have signed on. Many of these eager beavers don’t even have children of their own. In the process, they’ve largely abandoned their former positions with groups like the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), a fatuous crowd that has somehow managed to grow even more epically pointless.

While NOMAS molders, Dads and Daughters becomes ever more glossy by the minute, picking up one famous endorsement after the next. It’s a solid career move for those who make the switch: Parents buy a lot of shit.


I live in a small town with a small town library. The books are artifacts, not because they’re particularly old or worn, but because they’re mostly there to keep children occupied while their parents take advantage of the free internet, a precious resource in our area. It’s a place strongly aware of the demographic it serves: an entire wall is dedicated to “Inspirational Literature,” a genre that mostly consists of Christian doomsday tracts, Left Behind and its imitators. Still, the town librarian has some strong feminist tendencies. Many of the short shelves have Margaret Atwood’s books standing on top in stark defiance.

It was in the parenting section that I found Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997). It was given special treatment, standing on display with its face puffed with pride. It was another bit of the town librarian’s feminism; a small attempt to better her community. I thought I’d honor that effort by taking her up on it.

Fathering Daughters, edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson, is radically different from most fatherhood screeds. It doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t try to sell itself, not even to its own captive audience. It never had a chance of becoming a hip, mass-market offering. The men included in the anthology are all highly literate individuals who can get away with using words like “rotogravure” or “legato” without an editor striking them out and laughing at the attempt to sneak them through. Most of them work as professors at prestigious schools.

The daughters they raised attended even more prestigious schools; Berkeley, Yale, and others, two went to Harvard. One left for college at 14. Many grew up with yearly visits to places like Korea and Germany, or spent their summers in England, watching dad use his entire season of freedom to run theater productions. The ever-young part of me can’t help but be jealous of the adventures — and horses! — the girls had, even as my adult side envies the careers of their fathers, talents that blossomed despite rampant alcoholism, depression, and one failed marriage after the next.

Many of contributors became fathers at an older-than-average age: two were a hairbreadth from 50 when they impregnated a much younger partner. I say that not just to disparage them for it — though I obviously do — but to add that to a mountain of evidence that says that the average father in my small town library might not relate much to Fathering Daughters.  Most of my friends who stuck around in the Rust Belt to raise children became parents during high school or soon after: if they could write as well as these men do, and several of them once dreamt of making an honest effort, it seems doubtful they’d write nearly the same book.

Nevertheless, the unassailably elite nature of Fathering Daughters is also its most redeeming feature.

Whereas Dad and Daughters tried making money off of Fathering Daughters in 1999, by referring potential buyers to, a decade later they’ve switched to direct marketing instabooks written by their own staff. Or, at least the high-muckamucks on their staff. Titles like 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem, and Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul would do Thomas Kinkade proud.For all the literary grandstanding that Fathering Daughters does — where nearly every contributor earnestly writes first for his own satisfaction and not his readers’ — at least it doesn’t treat raising a female human being like an exercise in motorcycle repair (there is a text called Fatherhood: an Owner’s Manual) with step by step instructions.

It does, however, treat it like training birddogs.

Don’t be worried though, Rick Bass, in his chapter “My Daughters,” telegraphs your alarm (p. 59):

I may have it all wrong. I may be the most sexist father left in this century. I can see hyperfeminists wondering to themselves, Daughters as bird dogs? [emphasis original]

Bass admits he’s a sexual essentialist (that gender is a fundamental part of natural fact), but reconciles it with his belief that we can all learn from each other. He’s one of the good guys because he makes room for both highly linear and femininely squishy modes of thought, something that he thinks real feminists give a shit about. Granted, in the mid-90s, such stuff was a popular academic motif so it’s hard to fault him for the mistake. He seems to genuinely believe that the average feminist worries about her daughter falling into a linear mindset, even though such things are actually a preoccupation of antifeminists. It is, after all, a demographic that doesn’t have to do any actual activism to advance their platform — thus they have all the time in the world to dote on the more ethereal notes of feminism.

My complaint with Rick Bass and his birddogs doesn’t have anything to do with his comparison, right or wrong, but with his framing and tone. His “hyperfeminists” divides women into two groups: reasonable women (some feminist, others not) who think he’s swell, and unreasonable women (always feminist) who don’t find him especially worthwhile or interesting.

When the word patriarch is used in Fathering Daughters, and it is many times, it’s always with irony, laughing at any reader who could ever meet the word and find it sincere: I might be sexist for saying this, and look how very smart I am for knowing that, but I’m going to say it anyway and no one can tell me I’m wrong.

Rick Bass certainly smiled as he dared us to object to his words.

So does Nicholas Delbanco in his “A Prayer for the Daughters.”

(Many of the contributors modeled their chapters on William Butler Yeats’ poem, perhaps at the instigation of editors Henry and McPherson. This, among other things, gives Fathering Daughters a peculiarly religious veneer. I find such literary embellishments excruciatingly boring; many mainstream readers will likely find non-religious people wielding vestments of faith in that way to be offensive.)

Delbanco writes, in defense of the institution of marriage (p. 114):

So, yes, I am conditioned by tradition. “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house” the poet writes, and however limited or patriarchal it seems I find myself in sympathy with that future-facing desire.

Marriage worked for him, it must be good, and thus his good-deserving daughter should have it too is the full extent of his reasoning on that matter.

Again, it’s not so much what he says, right or wrong, but how he positions his words. He’s imagining an audience of people that he wants to speak over, past, anyone who might have experience (or empirical research) that would contradict his own; most notably, his feminist oppressors; those women who want to ruin his daughters’ lives by ruining his life.

The entire book is designed as a warning salvo to that audience. Men know that other men don’t really read their books: each man cares only for the story of his own life and works to tell it as often and as loudly as he can. Even Warren Farrell, antifeminist hero and the author of The Myth of Male Power, has admitted that he writes his books for women, the people who read books. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.

This becomes quite clear in the introduction of Fathering Daughters. The message is, like it or not — and we’ll really get off on putting you in your place if you dare to say “not” — fathers need to have greater than equal share in framing the “conversation.” An equal share would give both sides the ability to suspend the conversation and go on their separate ways. Big daddy’s not going to give you a choice.


To prepare for our task as editors of this collection, we visited bookstores in Harvard Square to become acquainted with books on the shelves. We found a vast women’s studies section in each bookstore and a conspicuous absence of men’s studies, other than a small section of gay studies.

We felt self-conscious about drawing stares. Here we were, two grumpy old men, clearly middle aged, one African-American, one WASP, browsing the feminist shelves in evident astonishment. Studies by women touching on fathers ranged from psychology to sociology, to cultural criticism, to fiction and poetry. Women’s studies questioned assumptions about everything from the female body to the psyche, from home to the workplace, all seeking to remedy a widespread discontent and pathology. Women exhorted women to childless careers, to recovered memories of abuse, to celibacy, to “wildzones” of creativity. A virtual industry of ideology was in place, and where were we, as fathers, in this call for change?

In volume after volume, fathers were identified as embodiments of “patriarchy,” and were portrayed as abusive, tyrannical, overpowering, predatory, absent, distant, shadowy, irresponsible, and victims themselves of traditions that denied women full human potential. According to many daughters, fathers were at the heart of their unhappiness as women. Historically, of course, fathers favored sons. Adrienne Rich was frequently invoked as a woman who looked past the personal to the cultural figure of her father: “There was an ideology at last which let me dispose of you, identify the suffering you caused, hate you righteously as part of a system, the kingdom of fathers” (“Sources” in Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems).

We were glad to find other books addressed at least in part to fathers, texts by women to help daughters and fathers talk and work together to “reframe the relationship.” These writers, instead of taking a divisive stand, have adopted an earlier, Betty Friedan style of feminism that called for equality rather than blame between the sexes.


Just as Rick Bass invented Hyperfeminists, Henry and McPherson create the classic spectrum of blame and praise. Women are dared to run afoul of their taxonomy. While Betty Friedan came out victorious, her name and history is irrelevant: in her place, they might as well have said Betty Boop. When whites set up a dichotomy between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re not doing it because we really love Dr. King. Dichotomies do not spring from love. Instead, such rhetoric serves to set rules of acceptable behavior for our audience.

Dominant populations never fear being hated but being disposed of, forsaken, and rendered irrelevant. The White idea of Dr. King is that we marched too; we gave the other freedom; our whiteness was and is still necessary for Black survival, we cannot be abandoned.

In that same way, the men of Fathering Daughters fear abandonment. They cannot abide a world where they’re a choice, rather than the choosers. They believe that their manhood and fatherhood (rather than their personhood and parenthood) is necessary for the survival of their daughters. The idea of political separatism brings with it great anxiety: tragically, they fear losing their gender identity more than they do losing their children.

Feminism, even of the meanest sort they attribute to snake-haired, dog-faced furies like Adrienne Rich, certainly “addresses” men. Fathers too. What then did Henry and McPherson mean? While they stopped short (whether by intent or by ignorance) of using the antifeminist division of “gender feminism” and “equity feminism,” it’s abundantly clear they somehow believe in sexism but not in patriarchy. This leads to a strange hypocrisy when it comes to the idea of identity politics.

While they can be endlessly self-indulgent in their own work, that selfishness never becomes an “industry of ideology”: they can’t see themselves. They are, as Marilyn Frye would say, the foreground. As the contributors are all subjects, perhaps radically so, the offense they take at identity politics is laughable. They believe themselves to be all just simple individuals (though of varying racial backgrounds), living their own lives — lives that can be wrecked if those other people don’t stop it with their goddamn politics.

Only other people are political. And yet they want feminists to honor them not as those blank individuals, who relate to the world uniquely, but as men, living man-lives, decent man-lives made more precious by fatherhood. I believe that is what Henry and McPherson mean by “addresses” and it’s what they require from feminists. If manhood and fatherhood are inevitable facts, with their social and biological senses ever swirling into imperceptibility, violent clashes with womanhood are equally inevitable and equally without fault.

Editor James Alan McPherson doesn’t believe in patriarchy but in a “gender war,” a dance of yin and yang where both sides are mutually complicit. He writes of his daughter’s holiday travels in “Disneyland” (p. 139):

She had no money, and was being obliged to sleep in a chair or else on the floor of the airport with the other children of divorce, tagged like Christmas gifts, who were serving out their obligations to distant parents. I heard in my daughter’s voice, that cold December evening, the quiet desperation of the many millions of young people who, through no fault of their own, had become casualties of two decades of gender warfare between selfish adults.

This belief, shared between him and Henry, so manifest in their introduction, led to their most outlandish inclusion in Fathering Daughters. In the interest of charity, I’ll allow them to describe the chapter first, as they describe it on the dust jacket:

Mark Pendergrast writes harrowingly of daughters lost to the Recovered Memory movement, daughters accusing him of sexual abuse.

The chapter was not written for Fathering Daughters but for a book Pendergrast had written years earlier, his 1995 Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. He later reprinted this same section in a literary journal, the Sun. Pendergrast uses a lengthy editorial note in Fathering Daughters — where he invokes “gender wars,” no less — to describe hostile reader reaction to its inclusion in the Sun. These reactions would lead him to cut any personal material from a second edition of his book:

Many of the resulting letters to the Sun editor were surprising and disturbing to me. One typical response called my piece “a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters” though it is instead of loving plea for reconciliation. Most of the letters — and some reviews of the book — concentrated on “Did he or didn’t he molest his daughters?” rather than the scholarly investigative work that constituted the bulk of the book.

Mark Pendergrast makes it clear that DeWitt Henry actively solicited him for the chapter but doesn’t specify where Henry first encountered the material. While readers of the second edition of Victims of Memory might be spared the reasons he wrote it, we are not so lucky. The chapter is a pastiche of happy memories he has about his two daughters from their youth, daring readers to intuit something creepy about the “feet games” he used to play with them (a deliberate red herring he offers), mixed with tales of a startling transformation.

When one of his daughters came out as a lesbian during college, he was cool with it; the sex part anyway. He found something else much more troubling, if only in hindsight, “By that time, being a lesbian — particularly on college campuses — was also a political statement about the patriarchal society and generalized male oppression.” He claims his daughter began seeing a college counselor and, out of the blue, “initiated a search” for repressed memories of abuse.

Later, she would tell him of her first recovered memory, of how one of his housemates had molested her when she was nine. Helpfully, Pendergrast offered to kill the man for her. Discouraged from that course of action, he bought a book for his daughter, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child and Sexual Abuse. While he thought the text made a great deal of sense at the time, in retrospect, he believes that the authors, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, “had an agenda against parents —all parents.” [emphasis original]

Pendergrast then launches into a tale about his daughters both cutting off contact with him. The reasons offered form a neat progression that he takes great care in crafting. They are at first mysterious hints (and thus suspect), then they are simple misunderstandings (thus easily explained), and finally they are the utterly ridiculous (thus absolving him of the former more mundane charges).

He writes that it all became clear to him when he joined the False Memory Syndrome Foundation: after talking to its leaders, he found that his daughters were following a predictable script offered to them by feminists. He was the one being victimized. He was a statistic, and he found solace in attending a conference with six hundred other perfectly innocent parents, each accused of sexual abuse.

The chapter concludes with a personal letter written to his daughters, his “loving plea for reconciliation.” In brief, he calls them both dupes of a great conspiracy and wonders why, now that they’re older and wiser, that they’re still unable to see his truth. He uses scare quotes no less than five times in the letter to reinforce that truth. (“I’m not saying that you are necessarily miserable in your new identities as ‘incest survivors.’”)

Mark Pendergrast’s chapter, “Daughters Lost,” offers several possibilities of meaning, none of which are mutually exclusive.

At the very worst, his chapter could be, as a Sun reader so elegantly offered, a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters. His words could be the ravings of a man so egotistical that it’s only natural he’d be unaware of the harm he inflicted upon his girls, ignorant of the boundaries he’s crossed time and time again, this time in ink. Good parents, one might think, when accused of crimes by their children, don’t join associations filled with pedophiles; it’s not as if any of the parents at the conference Pendergrast attended could be vetted.

At best, one must certainly allow for the possibility of his innocence, that his daughters really were misled by a rogue psychologist. One could believe that his entire family was victimized by a brief phenomenon in the 1990s. However, this phenomenon received media attention in a panic that far outstripped any evidence that could prove there was an entire industry devoted to wrecking lives with hypnotism and false memories.

Mark Stanton covers the media’s infatuation with the False Memory Syndrome at the Columbia Review, and his 1997 “U-Turn on Memory Lane” is recommended as a definitive source on the subject:

A Harvard Law Review article in January 1996 argued that while scientific evidence proves the existence of delayed memories, biased reporting has helped create a social climate in which people, including some judges, have come to believe just the opposite. “Stories highlighting dubious-sounding or clearly mistaken memories have replaced reports of more plausible recollections,” two Northwestern University law professors, Cynthia Grant Brown and Elizabeth Mertz, wrote in the Review. “The abusive parents of earlier media accounts have been replaced as the villains of the story by self-serving therapists,” they said, and wondered “why it is apparently so difficult to contemplate the obvious but more complicated possibility that there are both accurate and inaccurate claims of remembered sexual abuse…. To the degree that the media has an effect on public opinion, including legal professionals’ opinions, there is cause to doubt that the public is hearing this more balanced message.”

How does Pendergrast’s story serve the average reader of Fathering Daughters? What message can they be expected to take from it?

Is it a simple narrative speaking to the archetypal theme of “loss,” as Pendergrast suggests DeWitt Henry saw it, telling of the “fragile, magical, vital link between fathers and daughters” and the pain that comes when it is severed?

Or does it suggest that readers should avoid therapists and, more importantly, keep their daughters out of the clawing and catching hands of feminists?

The latter seems more likely. “Daughters Lost,” at 21 dense pages, is nearly 10 percent of Fathering Daughters. Rather than a side note in the message of what fatherhood means to men, editors Henry and McPherson allowed — and encouraged — it to become the dominant theme of their text. This is what they believe fathers should be thinking about, a grave concern for all dads. They reinforce this with the monitions they give about the “gender wars” in their own chapters and introduction.

While Henry and McPherson supplied that antifeminist context for “Daughters Lost,” their framing of Pendergrast’s work is far from unique. There is an AOL website dedicated to Victims of Memory that has all the earmarks of being official (it takes great liberties with displaying large swaths of text and includes an AOL email address for contacting Pendergrast). Along with information on ordering the book, and long excerpts from each chapter, there is a long list of recommended hyperlinks.

Among them are antifeminist Men’s Rights websites (often a marketing tool used by child custody lawyers), Christian fundamentalist groups, and so-called Equity Feminists. Such feminists are seldom seen as anything of the sort by other feminists, but they are highly successful at being published. Men can’t resist helping them get their message out.

The first Equity Feminist group offered up by Victims of Memory is the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. Contrary to their name, the organization never had anything to do with fighting censorship. Their mission, as they state it, is to “create social services which serve to reform child abuse legislation” and to “make the system accountable and to assist those falsely accused.” They post reviews of books with grand names like Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of Modern American Witch Hunt, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker.

Debbie Nathan made a career out of writing about False Memories in the 1990s. She even wrote an article for Playboy called “Cry Incest.” The provocative title — to cry rape, from to cry wolf, to lie — was a perfect fit for Playboy, that favorite magazine of good fathers everywhere: women are whores and when they’re not whores, they’re liars. This is the crowd that supports Mark Pendergrast and his work. They are his people.

DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson joined those same people when they constructed the narrative flow of Fathering Daughters. While many of the contributors are simply guilty by association, of running in social circles that all but guaranteed that they’d be published in the anthology, it was Henry and McPherson who worked to guide the reader down a foxglove path. That path is well-worn by less literate and less privileged antifeminists.

It has occurred to me how wrong I was in the beginning of this review. I believed that Fathering Daughters existed on an elite paradigm that could ignore the command of petty capitalism; that it didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator or try to sell itself. Its deliberate voyage into antifeminism, always a useful sales hook, proves otherwise.

While the blurbs on the back cover might talk up the genius of the editors and contributors (“They have seen that the writers shuck the subject of sentimentality and have given us the real core of the relationship between fathers and daughters.” Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying), the book as a whole is not high literature but a cheap genre work. Henry and McPherson made it so. Its message and focus is no different than any number of books produced for the fathers’ rights market, even if the editors of those tomes don’t discuss their meetings at Harvard Square.

Professorships and Pulitzer Prizes do insulate Fathering Daughters from being seen as an antifeminist work. They are successful men who know, and fuck, successful women — women who are automatically assumed to be feminist by virtue of that success, a popularized misconception where feminists are held as the “tops” in some sort of sadomasochistic relationship vis-à-vis other women. These men have that seal of approval and more: enough published work to prove they only dabble in complaining, that they’re not the sort of losers who beat their chests as they howl about the invisible matriarchy.

Still, Fathering Daughters is what it is: one of the most interesting and well crafted books in the how to be a better patriarch genre. What Fathering Daughters isn’t, however, is read.

Consider how controversial Mark Pendergrast proved when he was published by the Sun. It was a firestorm.

And yet no one from Dads and Daughters or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seemed to take notice of his chapter before recommending the anthology to the world. Did any of these fathers even bother to read it? I suppose not. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.

Frank Peretti is often described as “The Christian Stephen King.” In many ways, it’s accurate: he writes apocalyptic fiction that’s a little bit too fantastic to achieve mainstream appeal. Granted, he’s sold a lot of books, but he’ll never be able to reach the same cultural status that the Left Behind series has garnered.

Peretti’s angels and demons duel mercilessly with flaming swords while his flesh and blood monsters skulk about in the shadows. It’s a touch too out there — especially for a demographic that loves stories about brave militia men and pornographic detail about their firearms. Peretti might as well be writing about pink unicorns. His fantasies are destined to be viewed as effeminate.

On the other hand, the comparison is unfair to Stephen King. Frank Peretti never has to be quite as good. The brutally-oligarchic world of Christian capitalism saves him from having to compete on a level playing field: “Don’t read Stephen King, he might lead you down the wrong path and you may never recover. But here’s a nice equivalent with 99% of the same themes. You can even offer it to your friends as a witnessing tool!”

Thus the champ of Christian Professional Wrestling doesn’t have to compete with Hulk Hogan.

The best Christian skateboarder doesn’t have to be as good as Tony Hawk.

The best Christian Romance Novelist doesn’t have to contend with Danielle Steel (let alone the Bronte sisters).

And Peretti certainly doesn’t have to match Stephen King to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.

Nevertheless, I do hold a deep affection for Peretti. When I was a kid, he scared the hell out of me in a way that no secular author could, being that he could leverage my eternal soul. I kind of miss those days. Horror just isn’t the same after you fall off the bandwagon.

Frank Peretti’s also a genuinely good guy. He’s written books about bullying and is generally sympathetic to outsiders in a way that most writers in his shoes decidedly are not, even though he does get a kick out of “redeeming” us. Still, you get the sense that he cares irrespective of whether or not you come over to his point of view.

I recently picked up his 2005 book, Monster, to see where he is now. I thought it might be a good way to see where I am now, too. We’ve both changed over the years, one has to assume.

I wasn’t disappointed though: in the running for a world record, Frank Peretti managed to absolutely terrify me before his book even began. Stephen King couldn’t accomplish that feat in his wildest dreams.

It was an acknowledgement-page that did the trick. Not only did Peretti thank his family physician for contributing medical expertise for forensic details, and a local mountain man for advice on how wilderness trackers operate, two additional names were given:

Jonathan Wells, postdoctoral biologist and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, whose book, Icons of Evolution, first got my creative wheels turning, and who helped me clarify my main story idea over a pleasant lunch.

Dr. David DeWitt, director of the Center for Creation Studies at Liberty University, who, besides being a brilliant scientist and technical advisor, is quite an imaginative story crafter in his own right.

Monster is a Bigfoot story.

As far as Bigfoot stories go, it’s a fairly good one: an internet forum of Sasquatch fans was quite satisfied with Peretti’s treatment of their favorite beastie and his due diligence in keeping with their accepted lore.

As far as stories go, it’s not a very good one at all. The pacing is off and all the hunters tromping about the woods, searching for the Bigfoot and the young woman it kidnapped, is never quite as fun or as interesting as Peretti seems to think it should be.

It’s also a Christian Bigfoot story, although it doesn’t quite reveal itself as one until halfway through.

To be sure, there are hints leading up to the big reveal: whenever something happens, characters emote in a predictable pattern of silent prayer. The formula goes something like this “God, why me? Why do you hate me? Why did you let the bigfoot shred my last roll of toilet paper?” For real. This initial anger is followed by acceptance, submission, and then thankfulness. Different scenarios breeze through the steps at varying speeds but the end result is that devout of Monster have some of the most boring internal monologues in the history of fiction.

The kidnapped young wife (and wives are always young, it seems), the same who lost her toilet paper, winds up living with an entire clan of Sasquatches. After observing their personalities and familial roles, she — naturally — sees an exact alignment with the biblical family of Jacob. She names the rest of them Rachel, Leah, and Reuben in accordance.

While all the forest frolicking might appear to be the main story of Monster, all of that is really just a coat rack to hang the story that Frank Peretti really wants to tell — the story that he had to cozy up with the Jerry Falwell crowd to research.

Each of the four main characters has a vocation that is essential to the plot. Except, of course, for the young wife, whose only purpose in life is to be kidnapped. (Although her personality is fleshed out with an affected stutter given to her dialogue; if you didn’t know, that means she’s shy.) Her husband just happens to be a police officer. His best friend just happens to be a forensic examiner. That friend’s husband just happens to be a former biologist at a local university. He might be last in the chain but he’s far from least.

Biblical literalists in America are waging a two-pronged assault on science. While so-called fundamentalists might consider themselves an oppressed minority, they’ve been remarkably successful in using pop-culture and Astroturfed (fake “grass roots” planted by corporations) initiatives in controlling public opinion. A majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution; that’s akin to 51% of our population believing in a flat earth.

For the majority of my life, I was one of these people.

I believed that carbon dating was utterly unreliable, that people really did walk with dinosaurs (the “young earth theory”), and that evolution is a highly controversial belief in science. It was “just a theory.” Of course, gravity is just a theory, too.

In the same way, I believed that global warming was a highly contested idea in science: how could mere humans mess up God’s vast creation? But as most of us, even the devout (and many self described fundamentalists who have been inspired to “go green”), have recently discovered, that controversy didn’t much exist among scientists. That controversy, the very idea of controversy, was just something that was planted in the public consciousness with large sums of money.

The war against evolution is waged in a similar fashion. Creationists — and their insipid rebranding as Intelligent Design proponents — have scores of glossy websites and books that put the Spartan websites of academia to shame. All of that costs big money, of course. 

On a high school level, they want to create seeds of doubt. They donate their books to schools that cannot afford new science texts (this is made even more convenient by conservative pushes to reduce public school funding). They work with laypeople on school boards to reframe science as the will of public-opinion. They recycle arguments that have either been put to rest or are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the scientific community: the goal isn’t the advancement of science but to spread the belief that science itself is untrustworthy.

At the university level, they hang their hat on the First Amendment.

They want to buy tenure for professors who can then use the title of Ph. D. to lend credibility to Creationist rhetoric. (It is believed that the same Jonathan Wells that Peretti thanked had his advanced degree paid for by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.) While many of these Intelligent Design proponents chafe under the claim that they never publish in peer reviewed journals — or that when they do, it’s material completely unrelated to biology — it’s not their job to be scientists but perpetual victims.

While what they say might not be science, it’s certainly speech, and their right to say it has to be protected.

As the secular world refuses to honor their personal beliefs as science, thus calling into question their identities as scientists, they get to complain that they’re being bullied by fascists who are unwilling to engage competing points of view. As churches have been spreading the idea that universities are out of touch with common folk (even the exceedingly rich and powerful “common folk” who hide behind the Intelligent Design movement) for going on six decades now, it’s quite easy to convince the public that something unseemly is going on. A conspiracy is afoot and God fearing scientists are being oppressed!

It’s precisely on this model that Peretti crafted his character, Dr. Michael Capella.

“Cap,” a professor of biosciences, was drummed out of his Corzine University because he “kept finding problems with Darwinism.” In Monster, he doesn’t so much find problems, but instead asks a series of flawed questions in rapid fire that, when not answered with perfect satisfaction, gives him the excuse to exclaim “a hah!” as if it were some sort of discovery on his part. It’s all easy enough as his beliefs don’t require evidence and aren’t required to make predictions of any sort: his role as a scientist is to play the part of the martyr and speak truth to power. Peretti transcribes the belief that the academy works to silence dissenting opinions, oppressing people of faith, on page 248:

Merrill smirked. “A word to the wise, Dr. Capella — if that term means anything to you: we are all scientists here, and that means we deal in facts. You are a creationist, and now have the added liability of being a trespasser and a burglar. Before you say anything to anyone, please give careful regard to which of us has the credibility —and the power to destroy the other.”

Creationist. Merrill used that word as an insult. Cap had seen this power trip before, and he was fed up with it. “Is this a scientist I hear talking?” [emphasis original]

Merrill smiled. “In every way, Dr. Capella; in the eyes of my peers and, most of all, in the eyes of the public. I have my responsibilities, foremost among them, not allowing science to be undermined by detractors like you.”

“Science? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call it ‘the only game in town’?”

The most prized of Cap’s convictions is that mutations are never a mechanism for evolution, as they inevitably negative in result (benign, harmful, or fatal): this is the theme that Peretti built his Bigfoot tale around.

He uses the story of Cap to tease the reader that the Sasquatches might be the result of a mad-scientist (a former co-worker of Cap) and his experiments. While the mad scientist gets his just desserts at the end of the novel — after a protracted speech specifying the details of his depravity, an episode unintentionally comical post Austin Powers — his experiments never actually worked. All he managed to do is create a Bigfoot-like monster that could barely move and feed itself.

Of course, due to the necessities of plot, the almost immobile monster was able to launch an attack on the Bigfoot conclave early on, in a deliberately murky set of scenes that amount to little more than hints in the prologue. Indeed, the first few chapters had me convinced that the book was going to be a brawl between Bigfoot and the New Jersey Devil (transported to the Seattle area somehow), yet the latter was deliberately ignored and forgotten until the final few pages of the novel in order lend gravitas to the big reveal in the finale.

I feel safe “spoiling” the ending as Peretti’s big reveal isn’t so much storytelling as it is pedagogy: the Bigfoot clan wasn’t created in a laboratory, they are natural, God’s creatures. While this is consonant with Peretti’s claim that mutations are never positive — and in his view, even if a scientist did succeed in creating a beneficial mutation, it still wouldn’t be proof of anything as it happened under an intelligent designer, not under completely “natural” circumstances — this does open the door to other problems.

How did Noah smuggle Bigfoot onto the Ark? How did they get to the New World? How is there no direct physical evidence despite the various giant myths (yeti, ogres, etc.) throughout human history? But Peretti’s science isn’t required to explain anything, only to ask pointed questions at those who dare to try.

Save for a few Bigfoot fans who can’t get enough of the big guy (or gal), everyone seems to be in agreement that Monster isn’t a very good book. It’s not a good book in the grand scheme of literature; it’s not even rated as a good Frank Peretti book.

It is, however, a significant book. Its purpose is to further the belief that American Protestants — unlike Christians throughout the rest of the world — are required by their faith to denounce evolution.

This proof of fealty has little to do with science or religion, but human greed and politics: to denounce evolution is to swear allegiance to a particular way of life and the socio-political actors who make it possible.

Many today think that evolution and the Big Bang theory go hand in hand (indeed, one school board acting on behalf of the Intelligent Design movement targeted the Big Bang theory as a fundamental aspect of evolution, confusing biology and physics). American conservatives talk about the theory as if its name were pornographic (undoubtedly spurring a television sitcom to adopt the name in liberal-kneejerk agreement), an abomination. Yet the Big Bang model of cosmology was in part proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who believed it to be theologically sound. It proposed a beginning for the universe, after all, in stark contrast to the always and unending Steady State theory.

Unflinching hatred for evolution is used in our society as currency. It marks you as plain folk, ever trustworthy and loyal to America and its corporations, not a heathen, communist, or even a Catholic. Denying a basic scientific fact says that, when push comes to shove, you will stand with the strong as they march against the meek. It stands for some rather un-Christ like ideals that are somehow acceptable so long as they are American ideals.

While this oath of obedience is currently sworn on the battered body of evolution, it could just as easily be affirmed by taking any number of other positions on any number of other things. Evolution is just the most active and visceral site for that conflict today. Tomorrow it will be something else.

As even evangelical congregations have moved beyond “the myth of global warming,” resistance to the basic fact of evolution cannot hold out forever.

Frank Peretti’s monster is a mayfly.


For information on the battle over evolution, two of the most comprehensive and understandable sources are the Pulitzer winning Beak of the Finch,  by Jonathan Weiner, and Nova’s Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.


I watched a bit of cable news yesterday. Honestly, I forget which network it was. It doesn’t matter. For the benefit of their audience they were showing one of those “test groups” of average voters. They were in the process of reacting to a speech by Barack Obama, each with a buzzer in hand contributing to some magic graph that went up and down — but mostly just up and up.

One after one, they repeated that he’s the perfect candidate. Not only does he have a monopoly on hope in politics, he’s going to be the guy to unify the country. As opposed to Hillary Clinton, of course. She would divide the country: Republicans will all refuse to work with her, so says conventional wisdom, and nothing would get done. She’d be a lame duck.

That, of course, is silly. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the character of Obama or what he said in his speech: I’m not going to comment on it, I wasn’t even able to hear much of it over the cable network’s babbling! Instead, it has a lot to do with what people — us average voters — are supposed to want. What we’re expected to want. What we’re told to want.

When did unifying this country become an all important goal?

We weren’t united when we got into this war, why would we be united if and when we get out of it?

Yes, it seems like a plausible campaign strategy, with popular support for the war in Iraq (anyone even remember Afghanistan?) being three steps south of “waning.”  But outside of that single issue, I’m not sure very much unity is possible. I’m not even sure it’s desirable.

Only one side is saying “bipartisan” like it’s a magic word.

It’s not Republicans.

Yes, they largely went with their own “moderate” candidate. It was a weak field, however, and the secular champions of big industry made a huge mistake by backing Mitt Romney. His religion automatically disqualified him from much of the Republican base. Baptists have spent big money of their own to disprove the tenets of Mormonism, so much so that Scientology actually seems quite reasonable in comparison. We can’t prove that Thetans don’t exist but we can prove in about a hundred different ways that Native Americans aren’t descended from Israelites.

Even as a moderate though, John McCain is expected to run roughshod over the forces of liberalism: That’s his job description.

They’re not worried about whether or not Nancy Pelosi will return his phone calls if he’s elected.

Yes, most Leftists like to believe that if not for the stranglehold Republicans have on stoning gays (or just brainwashing them back to straight, et tu Barack?) and burning witches, many conservatives would be swayed by our populist initiatives. Maybe that’s true. I’m not sure it will happen within our lifetime.

If one believes — as many do in our nation — that American prosperity is a direct reward for our piety (or lack thereof in times of recession) and our support for Zionism, maybe one doesn’t personally need populism. Keeping things like science out of our children’s classrooms, yes. Populism, not so much.

Only one side is saying “bipartisan” like it’s a magic word.

Are we supposed to break bread with “Huck’s Army,” those people who would put stoning gays and burning witches (and sniping “abortionists”) ahead of the welfare of their own families?

I thought this election was supposed to be our chance to send a message that that sort of stuff isn’t going to fly anymore.

Instead, it seems that “hope” equals the path of least resistance.

If Obama can get more done than Clinton, it won’t be because Republicans like him more, it will be because he offers Republicans deals that give them what they want at the expense of the ideals for which his own party stands.

I’m not at all suggesting that he’d do that. I’m not suggesting that he wouldn’t, either.

I’m only speaking of the ludicrous nature of this “unity” polemic. Yes, it’s currently boosting Obama at the expense of Clinton, and that’s something that one can ponder and talk about, preferably in that order. But in the grand scheme of things it’s just a point of trivia.

The mainstream media paints a picture of the “average voter” as being a non-political entity. He — yes, he — is supposedly tired of politics, even though a controversial election makes for exciting television viewing and view he does. He wants things to get done and he wants to elect people who will get things done. What things? Who knows! But they’ll get done.

The two-party system gets in the way of things getting done. Someone is always vetoing this or filibustering that and nothing ever gets done. The media loves to point that out. It especially loves to point out that the average voter, thanks to the media, is now cognizant of that “fact.”

As it’s impossible to reject that two-party system (without being mocked by that system, the media, and other average voters), how is anything to get done?

There are two answers to that question:

If you believe in personal liberty and a secular state, the average voter expects you to find a way to work towards bipartisanism. As the “feminine,” this is what makes them sexy.

If you believe in stoning gays and burning witches (or finding more polite ways to make life into your idea of hell for people), the average voter expects you steamroll your way to victory. As the “masculine” party, that is what makes them sexy.

Those are two very different standards.

As the “average voter” is now more currently invested in the Democratic primary (and at this point it’s unclear whether it’s due to dissatisfaction with the Republicans or general excitement over a mud fight), there’s a lot of talk about how the Democrats can best fulfill their standard.

Barack Obama seems to be the frontrunner: the average voter believes he can deliver what Democrats are expected to deliver: Bipartisanship. Getting things done. What things? How? It doesn’t matter, we’ll do it together. One nation under God.

This is hope. Or at least what passes for it these days.

Only one side is saying “bipartisan” like it’s a magic word.

Only one side has to, thanks to the media and the average voter they created.

I don’t know Ruth Christenson.

Until today, I’d never heard her name before. I suspect that you haven’t either.

What I do know:

In July of 1984, she walked into a Minneapolis bookstore that sold pornography. She carried a backpack filled with literature that condemned sexual exploitation.

Earlier that week, Christensen had written letters to local politicians. One recipient was Charles Hoyt, a city council member sponsoring an anti-pornography ordinance. Her letter told him that “sexism has shattered my life.”

When she entered that shop, she proved that her beliefs — so easily dismissed by even her peers in this world — were more than just words.

Ruth Christenson doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. She burned for over a minute before bystanders were able to extinguish the flames that engulfed her. She was removed from the store in critical condition, with burns over 65 percent of her body.

It’s a tremendous story. It’s also one that I stumbled onto by accident. News clippings from 1984 don’t exactly throw themselves at you, not even on the internet. The short article, written just days after Christenson burned, told only the most basic facts about her existence.

The most heartbreaking aspect of the saga can be witnessed in the words of another local activist. Terese Stanton was the organizer of a Pornography Resource Center in Minnesota. Speaking through that article to an audience twenty years removed, her words about Ruth Christenson are haunting: “This will not be in vain — she did this for a lot of women. This will definitely be witnessed and remembered.”

Perhaps Ruth Christenson is still remembered in quiet vigils in Minneapolis. I hope so. She sure as hell isn’t remembered anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s for the best. If Ruth Christenson were remembered today, she’d be remembered not as a hero — or even as a martyr — but as a crazy woman. A tragic figure, no doubt, but the tragedy would be considered hers to bear alone.

Even people calling themselves feminists, no shortage of men in that number these days, would believe Christenson did what she did out of selfish, personal desperation: an inability to cope with private horrors that have little to do with what the “common woman” experiences. Hormones and brain chemistry. To them, that can be the only reason why she took such a terrible and final action.

Not because sexism shatters women’s lives.

Two decades after Ruth Christenson set herself on fire, very little has changed. Many would argue that things have gotten worse.

While sexism can be talked about as violence, only the most blatant, rude, and Republican forms of it can be addressed. A bourgeois woman is a battered wife, a bohemian woman is a “bottom,” living a lifestyle, or transcending cultural mores.

Sexism can only be seen as violence when that violence isn’t seen as sexy.

Eve Ensler’s “V-Day” festivities are, well, festive. All too often they resemble drag shows even when they aren’t specifically drag shows — as they sometimes are. The consumerist crowds they assemble would never condone a legitimate anti-pornography message. No Monologue will ever be said in honor of Ruth Christenson. That’s likely for the best. I doubt she’d want someone talking about her vagina. After all, it’s men and not female genitalia that needs to change.

Even the more somber Take Back the Night processions, now often equally about men’s “pain,” are enthralled with capitalism. The march that takes place in my home city of Buffalo was once sponsored by a college bar that uses underage girls as bait for its paying male clientele.

When it comes to the idea of consent, critiques of capitalism aren’t allowed in our culture: few are willing to think about how money — and the power it gives one person over another — influences our opportunities to say “no.”

Even liberals run from such critiques. Feminists, too. How could Ruth Christenson be remembered in a world where feminist bestsellers borrow the language of pornography to drum up sales?

What room is there for the utter simplicity of Ruth Christenson’s message in a world where bait-and-switch schemes shift the blame from pornography to easily trademarked phenomena such as “Raunch Culture?” Even authors who aren’t necessarily against porn can make a mint off of women’s fundamental uneasiness with their own exploitation, happily displacing feminist writers in the process.

Who would be willing to remember the bravery of Ruth Christenson in a world where even anti-pornography activists are ready to shed the word “feminist” from their organizations in exchange for better funding?

And what of this new virtual world that all too many of us seem to inhabit — is there room in it for Ruth Christenson, someone so clearly invested in the realities of life?

Online feminism tends towards a curious fusion of post-modernist academia and hipster sensibilities. There, the idea of “gender oppression” has become subordinate to “gender expression.” This shifts the political focus of feminism from the voiceless to media exhibitionists. Gender is something that makes you more interesting. Gender is something that makes you better in bed. Gender is something that scores you a book deal.

There are a lot of Gender-Superstars now. And not one of them has ever made a sacrifice for his or her convictions the way that Ruth Christenson did.

Instead, they’ll tell you that porn isn’t going away. They’ll tell you that it’s vital for our education as sexual beings. They’ll tell you that even though they agree that 99 percent of porn is sexist and racist (not that they’ll personally do anything about the pornography that is sexist and racist, indeed, they view both on the same level as “tackiness,” the only pornographic crime they ever publicly object to), they hold out hope for a new feminist porno-paradigm. And they’ll require you to do the same or they’ll throw you to the dogs: the male pimps and johns that cluster about them, celebrating their every word.

In turn, they’ll glorify the ingenuity of the men who conspired to shatter Ruth Christenson and her world. In my research I found a magazine article bearing testament to her deed: it was a journalist’s 1997 love-letter letter to the store franchise’s founder, congratulating him as Russian immigrant who made good on the American dream.

It was an ode to freedom and male cleverness at any cost, including women’s lives.

Ruth Christenson was reduced by the writer to a “moral snit” and a punch line. One former employee recounts how, on his very first day there, Christenson set herself alight: to him, it was just a zany event that bookended his rollercoaster of wild experiences at the store. In order for him to become the man he is today — and not just any man but a “rocker” whose persona is created out of the telling of such stories — she had to die.

Only Ruth Christenson didn’t die that day. She lived.

She endured seven operations and somehow found the strength to carry on, despite her wounds and disfigurement. She didn’t just disappear. She brought a message of hope to the women in her community. Larry Cloud-Morgan, manager of a shelter for American Indian women, told the Star Tribune how Christenson would stop by to talk with the occupants. “She knew them on the street, and she loved them. We talked about justice and a woman’s world and compassion.”

Her compassion was without limits. Cloud-Morgan said that the last time they spoke, Christenson said that she feared a war in the Persian Gulf, that she was “afraid that the women and children there may someday have to look like me.”

Such compassion wears hard on a human soul. Ruth Christenson died on December 6, 1990. She set another fire. Only this time she was alone, cloistered in her apartment.

She never lived to see “Desert Storm” on her TV. She never saw the images of bombs falling down chimneys in antiseptic black and white. She never watched her country march to war a second time, our corporations lining up to trademark “Shock and Awe” for use in videogames. But Christenson fully anticipated it. The pornography of war — and of everyday life — was all too clear to her. 

If Ruth Christenson were alive today, she would be approaching 50 years old. I can’t know what she’d think about me dredging up the past and telling her story — I’d hope that she’d prefer someone more worthy to tell it. I certainly can’t speak for her. I’ll never know the full extent of her motivations when she set herself on fire. All I know is that I wish she hadn’t done it. But even more than that, I wish she hadn’t needed to do it in the first place. Her psychology was never the real problem.

Sexual exploitation is always a backburner issue. It comes up from time to time, but only when it’s “over there” in other countries, countries our government declares are full of bad men. Men who aren’t at all like the men who live here.

Women who complain about the men here are silenced quickly. After all, they certainly don’t have it as bad as the women over there. I defy anyone to say that Ruth Christenson didn’t have it “bad.”

Liberal men, especially, demand that their female peers abandon any interest in “feminist issues,” those things that “only affect women,” until the more important crises are all brought to conclusion. When men set themselves on fire to protest one war or another (each always a problem of male creation), they are at least honored for their sacrifice by those who share their politics. Those men are proved strong by their actions, rather than weak, foolish, and broken. And yet that’s just how our world regards a woman who would make the same sacrifice for herself and others like her.

If female bravery of that kind could be celebrated, it would mean that women suffer under patriarchy in the here and now, even surrounded by good men.

Relatively few today would celebrate bravery of that kind — even those of us who believe in equality for all human beings. The vocation of silencing women comes with great rewards in our society. And with those rewards, it’s quite easy to believe that one is smarter, stronger, and better than the Ruth Christensons of the world. We think that we can find the middle ground. We absolutely know that we can have it both ways.

Imagine the hubris of someone saying, “Ruth Christenson just needed to see some feminist porn. Then everything would have been different.”

Someone will say it soon enough.

Update on Ruth Christenson

I am revising the post on Ruth Christenson and will be posting a new version soon.

Thanks to Moonlight and a few other researchers, another article about Ruth Christenson was uncovered at the Star Tribune. It is from December 14, 1990.

Christenson died of apparent suicide on December 6, 1990, as a conflagration engulfed her Minneapolis apartment. Two brief excerpts:

In the 6 1/2 years since she stepped inside a downtown Minneapolis bookstore, poured gasoline over her head and set herself afire, Christenson knew a lot of anguish, they said.

There had been seven painful skin-graft operations after the 1984 protest, which came during a bitter and protracted City Council debate on pornography. She had third-degree burns over 65 percent of her body, and her face was badly disfigured.

A full year passed before she dared to look at herself in a mirror.

Larry Cloud-Morgan, who operates a Minneapolis shelter for American Indian women, said Christenson often stopped by to talk. “She talked about my people,” he said. “She knew them on the street, and she loved them. We talked about justice and a woman’s world and compassion.”

The last time they talked, he said, she was worried about the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf. “She said, ‘I’m afraid that the women and children there may someday have to look like me.’”

Christenson stood, burning, for about half a minute, then staggered and collapsed. She continued to burn for perhaps another 30 seconds as clerks and customers used fire extinguishers and carpets to put out the fire, which had spread to stacks of newspapers and other material.

A sheaf of hand-lettered leaflets — “Stop Porn Now” — fell from her backpack. She also had firecrackers and .22-caliber bullets in the backpack.

Despite her burns, Christenson remained conscious. She said nothing and didn’t cry out.She had mailed letters to city officials, describing her hatred of pornography and announcing that she would commit suicide to protest the degradation of women. The letters arrived after her protest.

People involved in the antipornography movement stood vigil at the hospital where she was treated. Fearing duplicate demonstrations, the Pornography Resource Center issued a statement: “We don’t want women to harm themselves. We need women to stay alive and intact for the struggle.”

Also, the suicide letter she wrote to the Star Tribune in 1984:

“Sexism has shattered my life — psychologically, economically and spiritually. Because of this, I have chosen to take my life and to destroy the persons who have destroyed me. I don’t know if any of this will have any impact on your civil rights legislation, but at least someone will have done something about this nightmare of racism and sexism that most pornography involves.”


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