Friday, October 03, 2014

I Can Tell Her What Her Answer Is

The story up in workshop had some problems, as is common in undergraduate fiction.

Half-satire, half-science fiction, it showed promise, but the author had muddied the point through not bringing forward the characters into scenes, through (as we like to say in the biz) commenting on her point, rather that showing the point.

"At its heart," I said, "this is a story about how women are commodities.  You've got this bit where you mention the guys cat-calling.  Well, show that.  Let the reader see what they say.  What they say should illustrate your point.  And here near the middle, this scene with the questions, those questions right now are sort of pointless.  Make them more to the point."

"About women as objects?"

"As objects to be consumed, right.  As commodities for other people to use for their own benefit.  It's why women are supposed to be self-abnegating, yes?  Because our lives don't matter.  We exist to be used by other people.  That's why the big argument over contraception and abortion right now, and the push for women to marry young.  Maybe get some of that into this middle section." I shook my head.  "I mean, don't make it about contraception.  But you could bring in the idea of having babies and early marriage and submission."

Meanwhile one of my younger male students had been trying to interrupt, and now finally he just spoke over me: "What does contraception and abortion have to do with women being, being objects?"

All the women in the class (there are twelve women and four men in this class) just stared at him.

"Well," I said gently, because he is a very young man, "if a woman can't control her body, can she control her life?"

"Control -- control -- what?"

"You need contraception to control your body," another student said impatiently.

"Look," I said, "if I don't know whether I will be pregnant next year, or whether I will have two children or six or ten in the next decade, can I have a job?  Can I get a degree?  Will anyone hire me, or let me into law school?"

He stared at me, clearly not understanding a word I was saying.

"The ability to decide how many children we have," I said, "and if we are having children at all, is vital to women being in control of their lives."

"But you don't need contraception or abortion for that," he insisted.

"Well, yes," I said.  "Women do."

"I would say, my answer would be," he said, "just don't have sex,"

I drew a breath, and then I let it out again.  A faint ripple, mutters and not quite laughter, had gone around the room.  "That's what women should do," I said.  "For the entire forty years they are fertile.  Just say no."

He stared at me.

"Just tell their husbands, for instance," I said, "for forty years, no, I'm not having sex with you."

The guy next to me barked a laugh.  "I've got a headache."

"For forty years."  I added, "Besides, that's just not what people do.  We're made to have sex, and we have sex.  Telling us not to have sex is like telling us not to eat.  It turns out we're not just very good at that."

"Abstinence," he began.

"Is the type of birth control that fails the most," I told him.  "You can look it up.  But seriously, we're not here to talk about contraception.  We're here to talk about this story."

Later, thinking about it, I was more troubled than I had been during the event, mostly because this student had intruded his scoldy lecture about the evils of contraception into my class -- I don't know if I have quite conveyed the forcefulness of his interruption, or how insistent he was on setting us all straight (setting me straight, especially) about how wrong we were -- but also because this student is so young.

Those were not -- or at least were not originally -- his ideas.  Someone is teaching him women have no right to their own voices or their own bodies.  Someone is teaching him he can tell women how to behave.  Right now, he's a kid.  He won't be always.


Bardiac said...

Sounds like you handled it well. He's parroting what he's been told without really thinking about it, and for the first time, someone's confronting him about the thoughtless parroting.

And it helps that one of the other men in the class gets it (or so it seemed, from his headache comment).

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Oh for the love of god.... These conversations are so headache inducing. You did handle it well. Good job.

delagar said...

Thanks, y'all.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'm feeling very grateful that I teach where I do.

Also, it strikes me that this young man has been given (and, yes, it sounds like parroting) no ideas whatsoever about how sex after marriage should work, despite the fact that the people pushing the abstinence ideology at him are supposedly strongly in favor of "traditional" marriage, and even promise that sex will be especially good for those who wait. Given the fact that most young people who aspire to abstinence end up following Paul's "better to marry than to burn" advice in their late teens or early twenties, we're talking about his marrying a woman who will spend 20-30 of her fertile years sexually active inside a marriage. Is he expecting to support anywhere between 7 and 15 kids on his income alone (since his wife almost certainly isn't going to be able to hold down a job if she's constantly pregnant or nursing)?

Methinks this kid, male though he is, believes in "happily ever after."

delagar said...

Cassandra -- Yes, he did look a bit taken aback at my comment about forty years of not having sex with her husband.

It was clear, in other words, that in his mind, women having sex = unmarried girls having sex. I think this classroom discussion was the first time it had occurred to him that women who are married (a) have sex and (b) therefore also probably use contraception and [gasp] even abortion.

I wonder what he imagines his own mother has been doing? (He has only a single sibling.) Ha, actually I don't wonder.

TGuerrant said...

And who said higher ed ain't about life. Teach on.