I was both amused and irritated by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's recent article at the Huffington Post about single-sex education and its relationship to sexual polarity and eroticism. His basic argument is that going to school with the opposite sex from an early age desensitizes the two genders towards one another, which disposes people not to marry, and if they do, dulls their erotic intimacy. It also has the effect of making boys seek out the more beautiful girls – and vise versa – which creates a hierarchy of beauty.
Noble sentiments: fairness for ugly people; more marriages; more sex for married people. Unfortunately, all of these sentiments then rest upon Biblical gender essentialism. Here it is:
This is why the Bible insists on certain incontrovertible differences that must forever remain between men and women. It says that men cannot wear a woman's clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and men are not to uproot the hair on their faces (Leviticus 19:27) (yes, that is the reason we Rabbis have such undeniably sexy beards). Even in external appearance, men and women are supposed to look different. In the Jewish religion, men and women sit separately in the synagogue, with a literal divider down the middle, all designed to heighten, while never overdoing, the sexual divide.
Now, if an Orthodox Jew (or an orthodox Muslim who believes the same kind of stuff) wants to think that increasing the gulf between men and women is the best way of advancing their sex lives, hey, by all means, feel free to do so. What they can't do, though, is to get past the simple fact that for great parts of history — and in the Muslim word even today — gender essentialism has been the essential backbone of oppression.
A while back I wrote a piece on Jewcy about honor(less) killings among Muslims. It's a subject that I've confronted frequently in my life (largely because it really messes me up). In my piece, I tried to suggest that not just patriarchy, but many varieties of oppression itself, are historically rooted in Manichean readings of gender:
At this point I started to wonder: how did the idea of "I am better than you" originate in the first place? More importantly, how is that idea perpetuated? The only thought that I kept coming back to, one that I am starting to believe very deeply, is that somewhere along the way every system of inequality and supremacism justifies itself by positing the existence of a purportedly "natural" inequality between man and woman, the original dualism. Man equals strong, woman equals weak, and thus lordship, supremacy, mastery, control, power, all become tied to this purportedly "natural" difference.
Now, people like the good Rabbi, Christian priests, and Muslim clerics, have had thousands of years of attempting to prove that gender essentialism doesn't engender gender supremacy (always the supremacy of males). They have utterly and thoroughly failed.
I am not sure why, then, they should get another chance, even if they are now able to repackage their gender essentialism with 'hip' terms like 'sexual polarity.' Give me a break.
What we should be really focusing on is trying to emphasize the shared humanity of men and women. Why should we believe that a man's desires or fetishes are any different from a woman's? Just because our parts look different? Again: we tried looking at the world like that, and all we did was alienate women — and excise them from legal, literary, social, and cultural spheres of society.
There is something even more pernicious in the Rabbi's comments, though, and since he's focusing on the Jewish-American community he probably doesn't realize it, but the argument he's advancing is precisely the argument used to advance the burqa.
Just in case we don't know what a burqa is — it covers a woman from head to foot in a cloth, often even covering her eyes. It's that thing everyone from the Huffington Post to ultra-right Evangelicals and Jews are always trying to "save" those "poor Muslims" from.
I was talking to a prominent Muslim cleric a few years ago and we were discussing Islamic modest dress, specifically the hijab and niqab. He is a very honest and learned man and is always willing to accept multiple readings of scripture. At the conclusion of our conversation, he conceded that there were multiple ways of reading the Quranic Arabic upon which veiling is premised.
Lacking any further scriptural support for his position, he proposed the Rabbi's argument: "If my woman is covered, it makes me more wont to have sex with her when we're alone."
At which point I proceeded to lose respect for him.
Nevermind how pathetic it is to rest one's religiosity — or salvation — upon one's groin; the fact is, if you accept the idea that men will find women more arousing when they are not always in front of their eyes, you will very soon have men who will say a) remove these women from places where us men hang out or b) if they must be around then cover them up in black so its like they are not here.
The world has seen enough of that.
The rabbi no doubt has good intentions, as do the many Muslim leaders who espouse similar sentiments. However, the way to create more warmth and empathy between men and women isn't to separate them, but to cultivate and raise and rejoice in them as if they were essentially — here's where that word is useful — the same creature.
God is one. So should be us humans.