Reframing the Poly Debate

Four Legs Good, Six Legs BadPolygamy, polygyny, polyandry, polyamory, polyfidelity… By whatever label, using whatever configuration, the concept of poly is to involve more than two people in intimate relationships. In the Western world, this practice is mostly seen as immoral. The legal marriage of multiple partners is largely illegal, and the unquestionable “rightness” of this idea is used and abused by both sides when the concept of same-sex marriage comes up.

But I think that it’s time that we, as feminists, reframe this debate. We need to reach inside ourselves and ask why the idea of poly relationships feels wrong. What is it that makes the stereotype of polygamy objectionable? Is it the idea that monogamy isn’t the only healthy relationship style, or that the only example of poly relationships have been ones that traffic in women?

I. Challenging Deeply Held Beliefs

Like most Americans, I was brought up to believe that marriage was something that happened between a man and a woman. I don’t remember when the idea was challeged in terms of same-sex partnerships, but I distinctly remember when my belief that polygamy was inherently bad was called into question.

I was in high school at the time. Standing in my kitchen with someone — I forget if it was a family member or a friend — I think I was reading something about polygamy, but maybe it just came up randomly in conversation. I said something about polygamy being wrong. The person I was talking to countered with, “Why?”

I looked at them and blinked. Immediately I thought about the places in Utah where young girls are forced to marry older men. That’s what most of us think of first, isn’t it? But, a young girl being forced to marry a man is morally repugnant whether or not he’s done this to other women or not. And it is, for the most part, illegal whether it’s his first wife or fifth. Then… what? It just felt more wrong? Come on.

So I gave the only answer I could. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s not.”

Since then, I’ve tried my best not to accept that something is one way just because that’s the way I’ve been taught it was. In the case of polygamy, the more I’ve learned about it, the more I realized that it was a lot more complex than the usual idea that it’s a bunch of old guys marrying underaged girls in Utah or the Middle East.

For instance, did you know that “polygamy” doesn’t actually mean that it’s a man with multiple wives (that would be polygyny), but can also be a woman with multiple husbands (polyandry)? Or that there’s a movement out there called polyamory (often referred to as “poly”)? A lot of people think that “polygamy” begins and ends with forced marriages of older men to younger women (not so different from traditional heterosexual marriage), and that therefore there is no other kind of configuration possible. But, if nothing else, polyamory tells a different story. There’s everything from Vs (one partner in the middle with two attached to hir), to triangles (all three partners connected to each other), to complex connections that end up forming a tight-knit community brought together by friendship, love, and sex.

II. Compulsory Monogamy

Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander?For some people, finding one person at a time to share their lives with is the only way to go. And, hey, if that’s your cup of tea, that’s great. But not everyone is like that. Just like not everyone is attracted to a different gender, or the same one, or any person at all, not everyone wants to be with just one person. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. And it’s no more fair to say that everyone should only love one person than it is to say that only people of the same gender, class, race, etc. can love each other.

How can we fight against mandatory gender roles, heterosexism, racism, ablism, etc. and then go on believing that a romantic relationship can only exist between two people? How can we go on promoting this idea — either by our vocal assent or our conspicuous silence — and then expect our arguments against having other people’s ideals imposed on us to be taken seriously? I don’t think that we can.

If a relationship is filled with loving, consenting adults then what business is it of ours what configuration makes them happy?

III. Refocusing Our Efforts

Which brings me back to what I think is obscured by the “immorality” argument of polygamy: human rights abuses. Putting aside the problems we have a society recognizing and dealing with abuse (as that is a whole series of posts in of itself), when abuse is recognized in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, the configuration of the relationship is rarely, if ever, seen as the important factor.

Let me use this case from 2001, reported by, as an example. The defendant was put on trial for bigamy and failure to pay child support. The article spends several paragraphs talking about Mormons and polygamy, and then ends the article with this:

The defense focused its efforts on parrying prosecution charges that Green married teenagers, divorced them and then collected their welfare payments as he continued living with them.

Green also faces a charge of first-degree felony rape of a 13-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had sex in 1986. He subsequently married the girl. The charge carries a prison term of five years to life, Reuters reported. A trial date is yet to be set.

What this article, and all the other ones like it that I’ve seen, have done is capitalize on the sensationalism of “Multiple! Wives! How Weird! And Thefore WRONG!” and either downplayed the way in which these women are used as chattel — taken, raped, and married as soon as they are biologically able to have children — or used them as a tool with which to strengthen the “wrongness” of mutiple marriage.

The suffering of these women should not be seen as evidence to support the case against polygamy, it should be treated as an important problem by itself. By making polygamy the main “evil” here, the focus is not on the actual harm being done but on the supposed immorality of non-monogamy. Furthermore, by using the abuse of women in a case against polygamy, it creates an idea that these kinds of things are unique to polygamy, instead of them being a greater narrative of traditional relationships of all kinds.

IV. Concusion

Love is... LoveAs feminists, I think that we can all agree that loving who we love is not wrong. I think that we can agree that people should be free to pursue happiness they way they need to as long as it doesn’t hurt others (a thorny subject, I know, but I think it’s a principle we can all get behind). I think we can agree that what happens between consenting adults is their business.

But, by allowing the debate about polygamy to be focused on mutliple-partnerships being morally wrong, all we’re doing is buying into the idea that one way — monogamy — is the best and only acceptable way. Not just that, but we’re also allowing the focus to be taken off the real atrocity: the trafficking of women. Traditional polygamy is no different than traditional marriage in this respect, and to allow oursleves to pretend it is is a disservice to the fight for women’s rights.

Can't a man be "sexy" for once???

An Ad Seen On Pandagon
Democrat Dates! Only Women Are Sexy

Here I was, trying to read Pandagon because I haven’t checked it out in a couple of weeks. I was minding my own business, looking forward to get my dose of snark against sexism, and WHAM. I was assaulted by the above ad.

This, my friends, is one of the reasons I ceased calling myself a Democrat or liberal a long time ago. You’d expect that a supposedly minority-friendly group would be above reducing women to role of “sexy” date for someone. Or, at least, that they’d shy away from a tit shot and/or use a male model. But then you’d expect wrong.

In Support of an Empress

This has been in the works for a while, but apparently the cogs of bureaucracy have started moving:

The panel last week recommended revising Japanese law to give an emperor’s first-born child of either sex the right to head the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy.

The revision, if approved, is expected to make Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako’s only child Aiko — who celebrated her 4th birthday Thursday — second in line to the throne, behind her father.


Support for the change is high. A recent poll by the nationwide newspaper Asahi showed 78 percent of the respondents were in favor of a reigning empress.

78% popular support doesn’t suck. It’s not the prime ministry, but the imperial family is a huge part of Japanese culture and, if nothing else, they serve as the cultural and spiritual leaders of the country. And, there’s something to be said of changing sexist laws, even if only because there doesn’t seem to be any other choice.

Via feminist.

Media Girl on How Progressive is not Liberal

In her post, When the straw man misses the reality bus, media girl discusses many things, one of which is the difference between liberals and progressives.

Here’s an excerpt:

The first — and main — mistake here is equating “progressive” with “liberal.” Now I’m one of the first to admit that there’s a lot of overlap. But I feel, at least from my perspective, that there are some important distinctions between the two: progressive means having a dynamic, proactive government that actively participates in the economy and the fabric of our culture, while liberal comes with assumptions about the kinds of programs the government provides. In some ways, liberalism goes beyond progressivism in the manner and approach of such programs, while progressivism goes beyond liberalism in the scope and goals of what a proactive government can achieve. At least that’s how I see it. (For the record, I consider myself a progressive who is sympathetic to the liberal cause.)

I also consider myself a progressive, not a liberal. I would actually go further than media girl did and say that liberals are often conflated with Democrats, although the two aren’t technically synonomous.

Anyway, it’s a great read that I’m too lazy to go through in detail, so if you want to know more you’ll have to go read it for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it if you do.

On Being An Oversensitive, Man-Hating, Embarassing Feminist/Progressive/Whatever

If you told me several years ago that I would be accused of being an “oversensitive feminist”, an “embarrassing liberal”, a “lesbian man-hater”, or “self-righteous” to the point of ignoring dissenting viewpoints, all simply because I unapologetically stand up for what I see as right and wrong, I would have laughed at you. Of course, back then I thought all people, except for ones who wanted to hurt others, were feminists and believed in equality of the sexes. What can I say? I was, and still am to a large extent, a naive idealist.

Sure, I can be sanctimonious. Sure, I’m self-righteous. But when did it become a crime to passionately believe in ideals? Why does my criticizing an organization, idea or belief, or espousing my own personal view on the matter translate into me telling everyone that they must believe as I do or die? Why is it okay for other people to dehumanize a group I belong to, such as the GLBT crowd, but ridicule me when I ask them to give me some consideration because the pejoratives make me uncomfortable? And why, oh why, do people feel the need to engage in a divisive discourse simply because they personally think the arguments are extreme? I’m not telling you what to do with your time, bodies, minds, or anything else, people! I’m just asking you to respect mine.

While this post was inspired by some recent events in the blogsphere, I don’t want to specifically name them because I don’t want the posters involved to feel that I’m targeting them. This isn’t about any one poster, this is about the common divisive discourse that critiquing anything from a company to a set of beliefs is tantamount to attacking the individuals within. And, again, if any readers see this and want to discuss/dispute their potential part it in, feel free, but my point is not to single out any individual; I’ve gotten this not only from the blogsphere, but from my ex-WoW guild, my friends, and even my family.

Under this discourse, if you say “[group y] did bad thing [x]” then they tell you how “not all people who belong to [group y] do [x], so stop attacking them!” Does this mean that people shouldn’t voice their opinion on things because someone might think that they’re unfairly targeting an individual? Do we all really need to put a disclaimer up every time we talk negatively about a group to assure people that “not all [group y] are part of [x]”? If someone is talking about male dominated areas, are they attacking all men? What about speaking out about homophobic hate crimes, are they accusing all straight people of hating gays? Is it hard to see the difference between criticizing an idea or practice and engaging in an ad hominem attack?

Another argument I’ve come across is the “[group y] has done some really good things, so lay off them already.” If I do something good, then, does that make me exempt from criticism too? I have no problem with someone saying, “I hear your point, but don’t ignore the good things that [group y] has done.” To use a specific example, Anika, on the American Apparel thread, called me out on ignoring that AA had some good practices, like employing 60% women in their upper levels. I acknowledged this point, although I argued that it didn’t negate the gender relation problems that they had. It is important to note that, just as doing something good doesn’t mean covering up the bad, so does doing something bad not mean covering up the good.

Yet another aspect of the divisive discourse is dismissing an argument simply because one has not seen the criticism in action. We all should step back and recognize that our own privilege will shelter us from things. Yes, I realize the need to make sure that the argument isn’t accusing all people of [group y] of holding [x] stance. All conservatives don’t hate gay people, but it’s still a valid thing to discuss how the conservative stance often marginalizes the rights of people in the GLBT community. All feminists don’t think male abuse victims are faking it, but it’s a valid thing to discuss how the feminist stance has in the past, and in some ways continues into the present, marginalized the experiences of men who are victims of abuse. All Men’s Rights Advocates don’t hate women, but it’s a valid thing to discuss how the MRA position can sometimes marginalize the rights of women. It is not helpful to derail a conversation about oppression/privilege/exploitation/etc. by implying that the subject isn’t worth discussing because you’ve met people who aren’t like [x]. Bring it up, sure, but in a way that acknowledges the validity of the original argument while emphasising that the criticism should remain confined to the idea, not the individuals who belong to the group espousing that idea.

And, finally, another tool of this discourse is to distance oneself from one’s opponent’s position by ridiculing their beliefs as so extreme they’re laughable. In this case I’m going to pull from a comment I made on a thread discussing this discourse in the feminist community. Sour Duck actually recommended that I make it a post in itself, although I’m not sure this is what she intended. It’s certainly not what I thought of when I said I would do it. Heh.

Anyway, pertaining to a conversation I was having with Darth Sidhe, I said:

I may not agree with spellings like “womyn” and whatnot, but I do understand their underlying point. Words have power.


The negative conntation to the term “politically correct” is also rooted in conservatism. I have no problem discussing the merits (or lackthereof) of using certain words, but to dismiss the arguments (and the women using them) as merely trying to be “politically correct” is offensive. It’s the same tactic used on us to try and shut us up any time we step outside the box that the men in power have tried to shut us in. Think reproductive freedoms are important enough to challenge the dems support of “Democrats for Life”? You’re just one of those PC, humourless, women’s studies types, aren’t you?


I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to understand, or agree with, everything these people say. I, certainly, don’t agree with the feminists who believe that all (female) homemakers are brainwashed zombies. I have run into some of them who, in other areas, are quite sane. But that does not mean that I’m going to use the stereotype that they fit to defend against women-haters, or even sit by and be silent while other people use the stereotype.

My example of disagreeing with an assertion without belittling an entire group is not limited to feminist stereotypes. In the Great Parent Debate (yes, I’ve given the kerfluffle a grandiose name) that I blogged about, part of what I was trying to convey was that agreement, or full understanding, of a point is not necessary for respecting the other side and their argument. Just because non-parents can’t understand how hard it is to raise a child doesn’t mean we should belittle the job that parents do. On the flip side, parents should also not belittle us because we non-parents don’t have, and sometimes don’t want, kids. If we cannot respect those who have differing opinions from us, how can we expect anyone to respect us?

What do we gain by pointing the finger at others who may share similar values as us and go, “At least I’m not like hir. Sie’s crazy!”? All we’re doing is adding fuel to the fire of our ideological opponents’ ad hominem attacks against our blanket movements, and making enemies where we should be forging alliances based on our common goals. It does not always have to be an either/or argument! We can disagree with each other and still work together. We can debate points back and forth without dismissing and belittling the other side.

What I’m trying to say is that if we don’t enter into arguments with respect and the intent to understand, then all we’re doing is pissing each other off.

Newsflash: Religion is harmful to society

Finally, people are researching the claim that I’ve observed anecdotally for years: all this “god” stuff hurts more than it helps. An article in The Times reports on a new study recently published examining the assertion that religion is necessary for a healthy society.

The study comes from a US academic journal called the Journal of Religion and Society and was authored by Gregory Paul. From the article, it seems that he took data from several respected research bodies and used them to create correlational data between several social factors and religion. Without the study, I can’t verify for myself how strong of a correlation he would have been able to draw, but before anyone gets too excited, I want to point out that there’s too many variables to be able to prove a causational model in this area.

From the article:

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

I highly recommend reading the entire article. I would love to get my hands on the paper itself, as I’m very interested in this learning more study. (Darn you, UBC library!) Heck, I’m very interested in the journal itself, seeing as the title of it leads me to believe that it focuses on the examination of how religion and society interact. I hope that Paul’s research here leads to a more in-depth examination between the impacts of various belief systems on societies and the people who live in them.

Via Pandagon.

Update: Found the study, it’s available for public viewing on the Journal’s website: Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look.

Sidenote: I am so pissed at WordPress right now. I was having some trouble updating this, and it had gone through, so I closed the unsaved file that I was keeping my update in and logged out. Guess what? The entire post went from published to unpublished status and lost the update I had written! ARGH.

Gender: Making a Caste System Into a Democracy

For so long I’ve wanted a good way to articulate the battle feminists wage over gender. Too often we are accused of wanting to make everyone “the same” (aka. “like men”), but that’s neither possible nor, in my opinion, a helpful discourse in any way. People are not the same. Period. It has very little to do with the sex that they are born into and a whole lot to do with their individual traits, which are influenced but not dictated by primary and secondary sex characteristics. Thus far, I’ve used the terms “cult of masculinity” and “cult of femininity” as shorthand for society mandated gender roles, but they reference more the specific traits seen as “essential” to either gender and less the reality of what forcing people to follow these strict gender binaries really is.

Enter a comment on a mostly unrelated post on the feminist LJ community [emphasis mine]:

There are feminists who believe that the way to solve sexism is to do away with gender, but i think a more practical, interesting, and diversity-friendly approach is just to make gender voluntary or democratic, as opposed to the rigid “caste system” we have now, where your gender is determined by a doctor at birth and is seen thereafter as eternally immutable.

[From Not a REAL FEMINIST!!!, comment by sophiaserpentia]

And there it is, in black and white terms that any one should be able to understand: democracy vs. a caste hierarchy. Who, among Westerners at least, would claim a rigid system with little mobile ability to be superior to a system that purports to champion the individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness? And if you support democracy in your governmental institutions, if you support it for yourself, then you have no leg to stand on when it comes to supporting a caste system over a democratic one when talking about gender.

Even if you believe in gender essentialism – a belief system yet to be proven, or even strongly supported, by science – then giving people the choice to act in a way that befits them hurts no one. If boys are “naturally” suited to x and girls are “naturally” suited to y, then in a neutral environment they’ll gravitate towards that anyway. If girls don’t like science, then why go through extraordinary measures to keep them out? If all boys are so tough, then why take such extreme measures to shame, and in some cases injure, those who show their feelings or other “weaknesses”?

But, the truth is, gender essentialism is a crock. The very existence of intersexed and transgendered people proves that a person’s identity is more than their chromosomes, or their primary sex characteristics, or even their secondary sex characteristics. We see further evidence of this in the visible correlation between more freedom for people to find an individual identity apart from the traditional one assigned their gender and the increased in varied expressions of gender.

Indeed, if we take a look at Southeast Asia, we find that their different views on gender has lead to a vastly different model than the Western one [emphasis mine]:

The concept of gender is much more complicated in Southeast Asia, with the complexities from social relationships, status, history and even religion. For example, it is often said that women in Southeast Asia has always enjoyed a higher social standing because of their roles in household management and their involvement in local trading activities. This means that it is difficult to establish very clear-cut distinctions between the polarity of male and female using gender roles. Both men and women often share these “traits”. Should trade and management of household finances be considered traits in exemplifying masculinity or femininity?


Based on my fieldwork on transsexual performers (kathoey) in Phuket, Thailand, I have found that there are many individuals who cross-dress, for different reasons and there are many kathoey (transsexual males) who are comfortable with having both penises and breasts. These people are therefore, satisfied to be in the “territory in-between” and see no need to transgress the gender boundary to become “totally women”. Gender can no longer be strictly defined in terms of possessing biological genitalia and the situational flexibility of gender and sexuality must be recognized. There has been a gradual increase in the number of people who have come to recognize themselves as constituting a separate “third gender” – the transsexual.


Rather than attempting to cross the gender boundary and passing off as a non-transsexual man or woman, many transsexuals are increasingly seeing themselves as a transgender individual, in a third gender category altogether. Some Western scholars such as Marjory Garber (1992) have advocated the need to escape from the bipolar notions of gender and use a “third category” to describe these new possibilities of gender identification. Transgenderism describes more than crossings between poles of masculinity and femininity. It means transgressing gender norms that are socially-defined. Gender definitions with clear boundaries are also not feasible.

[From Transgressing the Gender Boundary by Wong Ying Wuen]

Wong’s study of Southeast Asian comes to a conclusion that many scholars in the West are only beginning to understand: people are not easily pigeonholed into binary categories. Modern feminism has by and large already embraced this concept, at least from my personal experiences as well as the scholarship I have read on the subject. Because of this, it seems so absurd to me when non-feminists/anti-feminists claim that feminists want to make everyone “the same” – if we acknowledge that people cannot, and should not, be forced into a binary caste system, why on Earth would we advocate forcing them into a singular caste system?

No, what feminists advocate, and indeed what all people regardless of their stance on gender essentialism should advocate, is a gender democracy. Everyone should be allowed to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. What that means is that it should be ok for me to cut my hair short, play video games, and have equal opportunity in the job world if that’s what I want. It means that my friends should all be able to choose to be stay-at-home-parents or not, choose to be caregivers or not, choose to cry or not, regardless of their gender.

It’s not wrong to let an individual choose for hirself what is, and is not, good for hir. What’s wrong is when society takes away that choice with laws, traditions, and social pressure. Choosing a gender democracy over a caste system is a win-win situation; it allows for non-traditional genders to co-exist with traditional ones. The only losers in a democracy are those who are more interested in control than the good of the people.

On "sick" states and birthrates

So, I was over at Amptoons reading a thread entitled Even For Pro-Lifers, Banning Abortion Makes No Sense, in which Amp makes a bunch of points about reducing the number of abortions that I couldn’t agree more on. Read it, go, I command you. Anyway, I went through the comments and ended up writing a response. Due to my bombastic nature, I decided to cut out one part entirely ’cause it was off on a tangent that deserved more than the page it already had. Ergo, I’m posting it here for your viewing pleasure.

So, first of all, some stats.

Abortion rates in various countries [via Amp]:

As I’ve said in the past, pro-lifers should be asking which countries have the least abortion? Belgium has an abortion rate of 6.8 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The Netherlands, 6.5. Germany, 7.8. Compare that to the USA’s rate of 22. Even better, compare it to countries where abortion is illegal: Egypt, 23; Brazil, 40; Chile, 50; Peru, 56.

Approximate net birth rates (births per 1000 – deaths per 1000) [via Robert, formatted for space]:

Belgium: 0.3 Netherlands: 2.4 Germany: -2.3

Compared to:

USA: 5.9 Egypt: ~18 Peru: ~14.7 Chile: ~9.6

(Source for Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, US: | (Source for Egypt, Peru, Chile:

And finally, top 5 countries with highest standard of living [via AndiF]:

1. Norway (birth rate rank 179 of 226)
2. Sweden (birth rate rank 195 0f 226)
3. Australia (birth rate rank 172 of 226)
4. Canada (birth rate rank 186 of 226)
5. Netherlands (birth rate rank 151 of 226)

I think the stats on the top five countries with the highest living standards makes a powerful statement: equal opportunity seems to lead to a true “culture of life” – higher standards of living, less unwanted pregnancies, less abortions, etc. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the highest standards of living are in general the ones that have gone a long way in encouraging equality and freedom for all and instituting good social programs. Using the birthrate stats, this achievement is often accompanied by a drop in population size, but if a society is looking for the best living standard for its current citizens wouldn’t it make sense for the birthrate to drop off until the number of people was equalized with the country’s resources to maintain a base standard of living for said people?

So, with that in mind I’d like to move on to the comment that sparked this tangent. This particular part of the debate focuses on birth rates and their correlations to “good”/”bad” societies. The main argument posited by the “negative birthrate = bad” side is that those trends will inevitably lead to the demise of the race/culture/country. I’m, obviously, going to be arguing for the “negative birthrate can be good” side.

Glaivester said:

I do believe that a society that refuses to reproduce at levels sufficient to maintain its population is a seriously sick society (unless, of course, this is a conscious and temporary trend to deal with overpopulation, e.g. Japan).

Glaivester’s implicit criticisms on those of us who choose not to reproduce aside, I’d argue that the “refusal” to reproduce at replacement levels is an indicator of a sick society, rather than a cause. Of course, my idea of “sickness” is a society in which people are not free to pursue their happiness to its fullest extent, which may or may not be Glaivester’s idea. To me, a 100% “healthy” society is an ideal one; one in which equality thrives and opportunities are available to all.

Now, since we’re using Japan as an example, I’d like to state my meagre credentials: I’ve done some minor studying of Japan, as it was one of my focus countries in my Asian Studies degree. I wouldn’t be quick to exempt them from the “sick society” label, even by Glaivester’s definition, as their conscious trend in lowering birthrates may not be as temporary as simple overpopulation awareness would be.

Overpopulation is a problem, yes, and one that I would agree the negative replacement rate is helping to combat. But other problems are also leading to the low birthrate, problems that seem to be gaining more attention as women and men make the conscious decision not to reproduce. One such problem is the institution of heterosexual marriage/partnership – because of issues such as the traditional work environment couples rarely see each other due to long working hours. Once kids are introduced to the mix, it falls to the mother (who is expected to have given up her career regardless of her feelings on the matter) to parent the children while the father is consumed by work. Not a healthy situation for any involved, so many married couples are opting out of parenthood. On the same issue, because of pressures such as those I’ve noted, many women are foregoing marriage altogether in favour of keeping their freedom to live their life as they want. These aren’t necessarily people who don’t want kids, but they are people who have decided for various reasons that it’s unacceptable to bring children into the world they live in.

These decisions have started to garner media attention. Sure, most of it is the “oh no! we have an aging population to support, what are you selfish kids doing? underpopulation is a huge problem!” alarmist malarkey, but as more people come forward with their reasons for not having kids the awareness of these social problems is spreading. Unless the government wants to try to institute forced conceptions, a policy that I doubt would fly, it has the choice of accepting the steadily declining birthrate, or improving society in order to make having children a possibility for those people who would want kids in a reasonably healthy society.

What, then, does Japan’s case say about the possible correlation between higher living standards and lower birth rates? Well, my theory is that a lower birthrate is a natural attempt to promote healing of the society. Like I said above, societies without unnatural enforced childbearing (whether it be socially mandated or legally mandated) tend to have a negative birthrate that in turn gives them a greater pool of resources from which to build a strong social network that raises the standard of living in general. So, on one level, Japan’s population drop will increase the resources available to the general populace. However, the political statement made by childfree groups like the NOKS goes beyond population concerns, or even the personal desire not to have kids.

Only time will tell whether or not these declining birthrate countries die out or level off at some point with a high standard of living for all. Still, if I had to bet money on the outcome, I’d wager that, barring unforeseen external events, countries like Norway and Sweden will continue to thrive and Japan will begin seeing some radical policy changes during the next few generations in response to the people who choose not to marry and/or have kids.

Religion And State = OTP?

So, I just got back from writing my first final (one down, two to go) where I wrote a masterful essay on “church-state” relations in Japan. In this achievement of literary prose that is sure to achieve me full marks on that section (yeah, right), I posited that, as things existed, neither religion nor the state could ever reign supreme without acknowledging the power of the other. Now, we all know that talking out of one’s ass is a time honoured university tradition, but I must confess that it made perfect sense in the context of the essay. Having had all of twenty minutes to think about it, I’ve begun to wonder: do religion and the state really need each other?

In the Japanese model I used for my essay, I examined the power of the state versus Shinto (indigenous, polytheistic, kami worshiping religion), Buddhism, and Christianity. Overall, I saw these relations as a dance between the state and religion – oscillating between one extreme and the other, but normally existing in a delicate balance with each other. I discussed the rise of Buddhism, how it (in the guise of “protecting” the state) eventually undermined state authority, which led to a violent suppression of religious power in the Tokugawa period. I finished with a discussion of the new religions that emerged in Japan, which restored an uneasy balance between state and religious authority. In all the cases, neither religion nor the state were able to fulfill all the needs of the people; even when one had its high watermark, the need for the other would change the balance once again.

Clearly, what happened with Buddhism and later the absolutist state of the Tokugawa are warnings against either religion or the state gaining too much power. I can think of other, modern day, applications of this principle (not naming any names, but the domain is often mistaken for a site devoted to making fun of a certain president that this applies to). I’m not all that knowledgeable about communism, but from what I know any attempts that communist states have made to suppress religion have either failed or backfired. Indonesia comes to mind, as part of its constitution, as either direct or indirect backlash against the attempted communist coup, states that one must have a religion, any religion as long as its not a lack of one.

As much as the bitter atheist in me hates to admit it, religion offers something to both the state and the people. For the state, it can be used as a tool to legitimize a rule – whether it be the Japanese Emperor tracing back lineage to a goddess or President Bush using “God” as a smokescreen for his real agendas (Iraq, I’m looking at you). The people get a sense of community that cannot be offered by the state, as well as access to easy answers that often erase those pesky grey areas of life and replace them with simple black and white binaries. What results is a triangle of state, religion, and society that looks more like my South Asian professor’s mapping of Ashoka’s reign in India than my binary model of state/religion. Well, I suppose that just goes to show me that nothing fits into a neat little box, or triangle as it were.

So, are state and religion the One True Pairing (to borrow from fandom)? I don’t know. I do know, however, that they have a long history of fighting and making up with each other that’s not likely to disappear anytime soon. I may not have said anything riveting or novel, but least thinking about this sort of stuff is more interesting than studying for my next final exam.

Behind Closed Doors

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

Lest we forget what can hide underneath a veneer of equality, the New York times has published this article by Lizette Alvarez that reminds us that public acceptance does not necessitate private practice.

Alvarez begins by discussing the support of feminism in Sweden:

Feminists here are seldom hectored about quashing family values or derided, at least publicly, as a gang of castration-happy women. Relentlessly, they have pushed for women’s rights, and their triumphs are well known. Sweden ranks at the top (or near it) in the number of women who hold public office, serve as cabinet ministers, graduate from college and hold jobs. Mothers are granted long maternity leaves and send their children to excellent day care centers.

Sweden begins to seem like a political and social paradise for us equality-loving folk, especially if seen in light of a recent post on paid parental leave with an “equality bonus” by Egalia over at Tennessee Guerilla Women. But no society is perfect, and Sweden is no exception. The dirty little secret in this case is domestic violence.

The turmoil began a year ago with the Amnesty International report, which took Sweden to task for failing to adequately curb violence against women and help victims cope with their situations. The organization also cited spotty prosecutions, vague statistics, old-fashioned judges and unresponsive local governments.

Alvarez puts much of the blame on the rampant equality of women, saying that “[r]ather than boldly tackle the pattern of violence, many in Sweden reflexively dismissed it as the sort of thing that happens somewhere else.” I think that reading is too simplistic, and ignores the need for a double pronged approach to achieving equal rights – using laws to enforce public acceptance while employing more subtle means to coax the private sphere into internalizing the new ideology.

I agree with the sentiment expressed in Even in Sweden:

So what is going on here? Is the whole edifice of relative gender equality in Scandanavia, or at least Sweden, a facade? I’m guessing not. More likely, I think, the lesson to take is that the barrier between the public and private is stubborn, and that it is possible to make great gains in where women stand in relation to men in public, without corresponding gains in private.

And, just in case you can’t figure out where I stand, I believe that public gains without corresponding private ones are valuable, but ultimately useless if the private sphere is ignored and neglected. Unless people actually start believing in equality, all the legislation in the world isn’t going to change what happens in their heads, or behind closed doors.

Via feministe