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Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Boyarin, D. (1997) Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyd, S. B., Longwood, W. M. and Muesse, M. W. (eds) (1996) Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fiorenza, E. S. (1984) Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1987) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gross, R. M. (1996) Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gunnarsson, L. (2011) ‘A Defence of the Category “Women”’, Feminist Theory 12, no. 1, 23-37.

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 183-201.

Johnston, J. (Forthcoming 2013) ‘A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism’, in E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds) Contemporary Esotericism. Equinox, 576-597.

Juschka, D. M. (ed.) (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Continuum.

King, U. (ed.) (1995) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Korte, A.-M. (2011) ‘Openings: A Genealogical Introduction to Religion and Gender’, Religion and Gender 1, no. 1, 1-17.

Krondorfer, B. (ed.) Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post)Christian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kugle, S. S. (2010) Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld.

Looy, H. and Bouma, H. (2005) ‘The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons who are Intersexed or Transgendered’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3, 166-178.

Lykke, N. (2010) ‘The Timeliness of Post-Constructionism’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 2, 131-136.

Mollenkott, V. R. (2007) Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Ruether, R. R. (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. New York: Seabury Press.

Scott, J. W. (1999) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, A. (2004) ‘On the Genealogy of Women: A Defence of Anti-Essentialism’, in S. Gillis, G. Howie, and R. Munford (eds) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-96.

Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yip, A. K.-T. and Keenan, M. (2009) ‘Transgendering Christianity: Gender-Variant Christians as Visionaries’, in S. Hunt (ed.) Contemporary Christianities and LGBT Sexualities. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 87-101.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.

Podcasts

Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Koosh balls, pogs, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Boyarin, D. (1997) Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyd, S. B., Longwood, W. M. and Muesse, M. W. (eds) (1996) Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fiorenza, E. S. (1984) Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1987) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gross, R. M. (1996) Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gunnarsson, L. (2011) ‘A Defence of the Category “Women”’, Feminist Theory 12, no. 1, 23-37.

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 183-201.

Johnston, J. (Forthcoming 2013) ‘A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism’, in E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds) Contemporary Esotericism. Equinox, 576-597.

Juschka, D. M. (ed.) (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Continuum.

King, U. (ed.) (1995) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Korte, A.-M. (2011) ‘Openings: A Genealogical Introduction to Religion and Gender’, Religion and Gender 1, no. 1, 1-17.

Krondorfer, B. (ed.) Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post)Christian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kugle, S. S. (2010) Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld.

Looy, H. and Bouma, H. (2005) ‘The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons who are Intersexed or Transgendered’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3, 166-178.

Lykke, N. (2010) ‘The Timeliness of Post-Constructionism’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 2, 131-136.

Mollenkott, V. R. (2007) Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Ruether, R. R. (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. New York: Seabury Press.

Scott, J. W. (1999) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, A. (2004) ‘On the Genealogy of Women: A Defence of Anti-Essentialism’, in S. Gillis, G. Howie, and R. Munford (eds) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-96.

Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yip, A. K.-T. and Keenan, M. (2009) ‘Transgendering Christianity: Gender-Variant Christians as Visionaries’, in S. Hunt (ed.) Contemporary Christianities and LGBT Sexualities. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 87-101.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.