Controlling the Female Christian Body

As well as asking why Christian energies have focused so much on the control of sexuality in modern times, it is interesting to consider in more detail how such control has been exercised. This topic can be interestingly pursued in relation to male and female sexuality, heterosexuality, and homosexuality Here I will concentrate only on Christianity and female heterosexuality, since I will argue in the final part of this chapter that where sexuality is concerned this is the area of greatest importance for understanding the fate of the churches in modern times.

If we go back to the beginnings of Christianity we find a situation in which it was the male rather than the female head of household who had primary responsibility for maintaining the "family ethic" of Christianity. In establishing orderly, loving and respectful relations within the family the paterfamilias would realize in miniature nothing less than the relations in the "household of God" (1 Timothy 2.15). Epistles like the latter show how quickly the potentially subversive teaching of Jesus and even Paul - with its tendency to downplay the importance of the natural family compared with the spiritual family of the children of God - was diverted into more conventional patriarchal forms. For the author of 1 Timothy, a male God who commands obedient servants was to be the model for a church order in which a male bishop commands the faithful and a domestic unit in which the paterfamilias commands wife, children, and servants. Whilst the pastoral teachings of 1 Timothy were regularly cited by churchmen down the centuries, they were given fresh force by the Protestant Reformation. Like 1 Timothy, the Reformers envisaged a Christianity that was founded on a patriarchal, family-based system (see Roper 1989 and Weisner-Hanks 2000). Despite its defense of the family, the Catholic Church's alliance with monasticism and its elevation of celibacy - not to mention its veneration of the Virgin Mary - was said to have diverted it from Timothy's vision of a church ruled over by proven patersfamilias. As much a social and sexual revolution as a religious one, the Reformation revived this "original" ideal by teaching that each family unit should become a church in its own right, responsible for propagating the faith, disciplining its members and ensuring the proper subordination of women, children, and servants. Against a background of changing socio-economic and political relations, the Reformers helped ensure a gradual migration of power from the hands of social and ecclesiastical elites to male heads of increasingly self-sufficient families. The luxurious and indulgent lifestyle of a pope or aristocrat was contrasted with the ordered, disciplined and respectable life of the householder. As a portable social unit of moral and economic culture the sacralized family unit proved both effective and exportable, capable not only of colonizing the "New World" but of helping re-shape the social landscape of the old. Catholicism was not exempt. Motivated in part by concern to avoid Protestant charges of sexual laxity and immorality and in part by its own dynamics of reform including a new piety centered on sacramental penance and the confessional, Roman Catholicism also developed an ethic in which "the holy family" became more important than ever before (see, for example, Delumeau 1983).

Social and economic changes associated with industrialization built on these foundations to initiate a new phase in the development of the family and sex. Though stripped of many of its earlier socioeconomic functions, allegiance to the ideal of "respectable" family life became a marker of the identity and superiority of the emerging middle class. It proved not only an inspiration and ideological support for this emerging class, but a means by which it could bolster its precarious existence by differentiating itself not only from a dissolute aristocracy on the one hand but an "unrespectable" working class on the other. As mentioned above, this development also initiated a new era in relations between the sexes. From now on men would exercise their leadership and vocations chiefly in the "public" world of work, whilst women would have responsibility for the gentler virtues within the private realm - including spiritual matters. Although women's domestic labor was not defined as "work" it had economic significance - not only was it vital to the emerging capitalist system, but because the family was rapidly becoming a major unit not only of production but of consumption (see A. Douglas 1977). "The process overall," comments Anthony Fletcher, "altered the whole notion of what a woman is. We can characterize it in terms of the inter-nalization of social roles as inherent personality traits" (A. Fletcher 1998: 189). People began to talk about belonging to the female "sex" for the first time, and such belonging came "to colour existence to the point of suffusion" (Riley 1988: 18).

In this restructuring of femininity and the relations between the sexes the churches played a central, indispensable role. Earlier models of women as powerful prophets or independent nuns and abbesses gave way to more confined and passive models of Christian womanhood. Femininity was wholly identified with the role of Christian wife and mother and the work of selfless care. It was as if the Reformation paterfamilias had delegated his spiritual duties to his wife. It was now up to her to maintain the respectability of her family, and it was on her powers of self-control and discipline that its status depended. Sexual self-control was central here, and became the symbol of the control - Godly and male - under which all female action must take place. 1 Timothy says that:

Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel. . . Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent. . . Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1.9-15)

The slippage in this passage between sexual, domestic, and religious duties is explained by its guiding concern with the control of women's bodies in every sphere of action. A

similar dynamic characterizes nineteenth-century Christian teachings concerning women and their bodies. For a woman to "lose control" sexually would be for her to endanger every aspect of her femininity and, indeed, her salvation. Worse, she would be endangering her whole family. Nineteenth-century middle-class and respectable working-class women could lose their respectability and drag down the standing of their families in a way that men could not. A drunken or whoring husband was far from the Christian ideal, of course, but such things were condonable in men in a way they were not in women. Under this system of moral control women were "angels" whereas men were "beasts," with the fall of the former being far more shocking than the fall of the latter.

Thus even though women might have been delegated some of the religious powers that had once been reserved for the paterfamilias, she must not forget the importance of male headship and control. Hers was the passive role whilst the man's was the active. The Free Church Magazine, discussing "Female Methods of Usefulness" in 1844 cautioned women against:

zeal and activity . . . lest they sacrifice those meek and lowly tempers which are so calculated to adorn and promote the cause they love and advocate. Female influence should shed its rays on every circle, but these ought to be felt, rather in their softening effects, than seen by their brilliancy. There are certain duties which sometimes call women out of their quiet domestic circles. . . such duties will, we humbly think, be best performed by those who enter this enlarged field, not from any desire of a more public sphere, but because, in obedience to the precepts of their divine Lord, the hungry are to be fed, the sick comforted, the prisoners visited. (Quoted in C. Brown 2001: 68)

It was to display of the "gentle" virtues that women were called. In the USA Catharine Beecher and her father campaigned tirelessly for the training of women in the habits of "order, neatness, punctuality" as well as "patient attention, calm judgement, steady efficiency, and habitual self-control" (Isenberg 1998: 80). If sexuality was the strongest of human drives, and sexual pleasure the most intense of human passions (as so many Christians since Augustine had believed), then control of women must involve the control of female sexuality - that control would now be the stronger for being internalized as self-control.

The ideal of self-controlled, passion-free, angelic Christian womanhood was diffused into Western culture through a range of media and forms of representation. In the visual arts, for example, nineteenth-century depictions of female piety fell into two main categories: the idealized wife and mother - demure, loving, and self-giving - and the pure and innocent nun - usually depicted with lowered eyes. As Jane Kristof notes, both are chiefly notable for the sexlessness of the women they depict (Kristof 2001). Even more influential was fiction, that most widely devoured of nineteenth-century arts - by women in particular. Short stories and full-length novels endlessly replayed a narrative of a thoughtless, careless, or dissolute man who is eventually "saved" by a woman.9 Though the stories had a romantic flavor - for the heroine/savior is nearly always in love with a man and normally becomes his wife - it is the heroism of the woman and her ability to redeem that is emphasized. Such novels no doubt proved inspiring and empowering for women, rather than merely gratifying or exciting. It was only in the twentieth century that they transmuted into "Mills and Boon" type narratives where romance rather than religious redemption became the climax, with the novel ending rather than beginning with the central characters becoming engaged.

Christianity also consolidated control over women's bodies and sexuality by means of more negative modes of reinforcement. In the medieval and early modern periods there were public means of external control. Both legal and illegal measures were sometimes used to control women's sexuality. They were backed by the use of force, which could be lethal. In the modern period, negative reinforcement was more likely to be internalized, and enforced by way of - for example - the emotional sanctions of shame and guilt. Proscribed sexual activities and stirrings were delimited and policed not only by way of explicit teachings but, just as importantly, by silence. The fact that there was less and less discursive space for female desire, female pleasure, female orgasm and female sexual organs meant that for many women and men these things ceased to exist. Given this negation, any internal stirring of active sexuality would likely be experienced - if experienced at all - as a source of shame and abnormality. Like menstruation, women's sexuality would be represented and received as a "curse" to be controlled, hidden away and, best of all, destroyed. Men were to take the lead in sexual activity, but even they must do so not for pleasure, but for one or more of the higher "goods" which marriage was ordained to serve.

It is testimony to the power of both the negative and positive modes of Christian sexual control over women's bodies that their influence persisted so long, even after the decline of the art and fiction that helped sustain it. As will be mentioned below, it is still alive and well in more conservative wings of the Christian churches. Even more remarkable has been its continuing influence within Western culture more generally, in Europe and especially the USA, right up to the 1970s. I can personally testify to the way in which it shaped my own upbringing in a largely secular English household in the 1970s, and how decisive it was in shaping the ethos of the girl's Catholic school I attended, and where I was trained in the gentle arts of sewing, domestic science, and good manners and exhorted to safeguard my "modesty" in order to protect my "reputation" and make a good marriage. Less anecdotal evidence comes from a source which is in some ways the more revealing because of its blindness to religion, namely Beverley Skeggs' study of working-class women in the north of England. Based on research undertaken mainly in the 1980s, and subtitled Becoming Respectable, this study finds that the lives of its subjects (born in the 1950s and 1960s) are still dominated by the negative imperative of avoiding the loss of respectability. What is more, "respectability" still seems to carry the same Christian freight that it did over a hundred years ago: ordered domesticity, hierarchical gender relations, female self-control and sexual continence, the labor of care (Skeggs 1997). All of the women involved in the study view marriage and motherhood as the chief goal of their lives, and those who undertake any form of further education undertake courses in "caring." When it comes to sex, they are wary. Despite the sexual liberation their generation is meant to be heir to, they know that for a women to initiate sex, or show too much interest in sex, or make their sexual desire too explicit is to risk being labeled "tart," "whore," "slapper," and - worse -to risk losing the prospects of a good marriage. For similar reasons, these women are extremely quick to dissociate themselves from "feminism," fearing for their reputations should they be labeled in this way. As 1 Timothy envisaged, it is in childbearing, silence, and submission that they seek salvation, albeit in this world rather than the next.

Despite the long reach of its cultural influence, however, the era since the 1960s has been characterized in many Western societies by a gradual diminution in the influence of this ideal of "Christian" femininity, particularly amongst the educated middle classes. Symbolized by controversial yet popular television shows like "Sex in the City" or "Desperate Housewives," women are increasingly represented as beings capable of sexual desire and of taking sexual initiatives for the sake of their own subjective satisfaction. Thus the "long 1960s" seem to represent something of a hinge in social and cultural history - not only in sexual but in religious terms as well. In the remaining part of this chapter I will suggest that this is more than a coincidence, and that women's rejection of an ideal of passive and sexless womanhood, together with a rejection of the church's "interference" in sexual matters on the part of both sexes, has a direct relation to the sudden and massive decline of the churches, particularly in Europe, since the 1960s.

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