I just left this comment on Rachel Hills’ article “Who’s afraid of Melinda Tankard Reist?” published in Sunday Life, 8 January 2012.
I’m surprised that you didn’t mention Tankard Reist’s religious affiliations. She’s a fundamentalist Christian. As feminists we learn to always ask anyone who is publicly morally prescriptive where they are coming from. Yet you don’t ask that question.
Tankard Reist’s critique of sexuality is based on the moral values of fundamentalist Christianity. She is of the religious right and a member of a church that preaches the second coming of Christ, the end time, and evangelism.
If we can tell Tony Abbott to get his rosaries off our ovaries because of his Catholic beliefs, why aren’t we telling Tankard Reist the same thing? And why are journalists such as yourself concealing her religious affiliations?
Like other commentators, Hills focuses on Tankard Reist’s pro life feminism. There’s been a lot of twitter chatter over the last few days about who is and isn’t a feminist, and there’s plenty of women who don’t believe that anyone who is anti abortion can also be a feminist.
That’s not the argument I’m going to have here, because for me what is far more important than whether or not Tankard Reist is a feminist (whatever that word means, very little I sometimes fear) are her religious beliefs, and the way in which they determine her beliefs about human sexuality.
Tankard Reist is a Baptist. Their belief system includes the second coming of Christ, end times, evangelism, and the belief most relevant to this post and a central tenet of the Baptist faith: the Virgin Birth.
Tankard Reist believes that the woman chosen to bring the boy god Jesus into the world was a virgin. Mary did not conceive the baby Jesus through sexual intercourse. The boy god required a fresh, unsullied virgin to inhabit throughout his gestation.
Why? Because the followers of the doctrine of the virgin birth believe that sex filthies the human female, and renders her impure. The inherent impurity of female sexuality can be tempered by the sacrament of Christian marriage, wherein sex is a means of reproduction, and offers relief for the male. It is better to marry than to burn, advised St Paul, demonstrating how little he thought of female sexuality.
The boy god needed a pure vessel, unfilthied by sexual experience. In this sense Mary was the most famous objectified woman in the history of the world, for to dehumanize a woman to the extent that you perceive her sexuality as filthy is objectifying indeed.
The Virgin Mary was in fact co-opted as a dehumanized life support system for a foetus.
It is from this fundamental position that Melinda Tankard Reist advises women and girls on sexual matters.
While I don’t like seeing little girls dressed as sexy adults anymore than MTR, what concerns me is that in campaigning as she does against the “sexualisation” and “pornification” of women she’s preaching her religion’s belief that there is something inherently wrong with female sexual expression.
I am also suspicious of her conflation of girls and women, when the two situations are entirely different and should be treated as such. Exploiting the sexuality of children (and children are sexual beings) is a whole other matter from the so-called epidemic of “sexualisation” and “pornification” of adults. I would like to see a journalist question Tankard Reist on her persistent conflation of the two. I believe it is deliberate.
We are sexual beings. Many of us, male and female, like to express our sexuality. It’s a big part of our identity. The ways in which we’ve chosen to do this have varied according to the style of the time. The ways some of us choose to do it in 2012 are, I would argue, no more or less scandalous than at other periods of human history. Yet a new sexual dysfunction called “sexualization” has entered the social discourse, driven initially in this country by Tankard Reist. She then gathered around her a motley crew of radical feminists and middle class moralists who tacitly ignore their considerable differences in the interests of the greater goal of fighting the twin evils they claim are destroying our society: sexualization and pornification.
I am unaware how many of her supporters are religious, but I would argue that they have in common an inclination towards zealotry, and an ethic of purity, both of which are to be found in non believers.
Are Tankard Reist and her supporters in reality pathologizing all expressions of female sexuality? Genuine sexualization we may well get upset about, as a particular form of dehumanization, but are they using that word to obliterate the perfectly normal concept of female sexiness?
Does Tankard Reist believe that being sexy and feeling sexy is pathological behaviour outside of the marital bedchamber? And why does nobody ask her this question?
“Sexualization” and “pornification” are done to women, according to Reist. Women don’t choose to dress, work and play in ways that fit these pathological categories. They’ve been forced into them by men for male gratification. If you think you choose to wear high heels and a short skirt and learn pole dancing, you’re wrong. The patriarchy made you do it. If you think you like to show off your legs and breasts because it feels like sexy fun to do that, you didn’t make that choice, you know. You are actually so brainwashed that the whole concept of choice passed you by long ago. You are a victim.
If you want to look sexy because you’d like to have sex, if you earn your living as a sex worker or perform in porn, in short, if you express your sexuality in any way at all outside of marriage, you are dysfunctional, immoral or both.
Somebody needs to ask Tankard Reist just what she considers an acceptable public expression of female sexuality. I suspect the reality is, she doesn’t have one. For religious fundamentalists, there is no such thing. A woman must be modest and pure, but definitely not sexy and enjoying it.
What kind of a lesson is this to teach our girls about their sexuality?
Having thus far failed to take control of the sexy and eradicate it’s expression through the invocation of morality, defining it as a pathological disorder is the next step in the reactionary battle for control of female sexuality.
Tankard Reist is very accomplished in deflecting questions about her religious faith. In an interview with Jane Hutcheon for ABC TV’s One on One, Reist coyly states that she “tries to follow the teachings of Jesus” and then insists that her work must stand on its merits and her belief system is irrelevant.
But if your religion teaches you that women must be “pure”, that sex must be heterosexual and occur only within the sanctity of marriage, and that its primary purpose is reproduction, how can this not affect your perceptions of sexuality as expressed in the world around you?
When you choose to make your life’s work campaigning against the ways in which women sexually represent ourselves, do you have the right to withhold your beliefs about female sexuality from the public you seek to influence?
There’s no doubt women are objectified in some media and by some men, and this can be detrimental to everyone. However, it seems to me that the last person we want making judgments about how to best address these issues is a fundamentalist Christian, anymore than we want Tony Abbott in control of our abortion choices.We need to think very carefully about where this religious-based approach to sexual issues is going to take us.
I don’t care if Melinda Tankard Reist is defined as a feminist or not. She is anti abortion. She is deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs and she does not declare herself. When asked why not, she counters that people would not hear her message if her religious beliefs became a distracting focus. She does not believe in any public expression of female sexuality, in other words she is repressive and dehumanizes women.
So, Ms Hills, how come you didn’t tell your readers all of this?