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The many feminisms and sexual ethics

In her essay in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, “First
Things First,” Kirsten Holst Petersen writes about her experience
attending a conference in Mainz on “The Role of Women in Africa.” She
recalls the young German feminists discussing the “radical feminist
solution” and debating their relationships with their mothers. Should
they return to their mothers and radicalize them so that they could
object to their fathers or should they leave them in ignorance? By
contrast, the African women in the room shared “how inexplicably close
they felt to their mothers/daughters” and how this resulted in mutuality
around issues like this. This radical division within feminist
experience leads Petersen to question the idea of biologically-inscribed
universal sisterhood.

After I reread this article I realized this is often the sensation
(although to a much lesser degree) I get when engaging Catholic
feminists on issues of sexual ethics, specifically around procreation.
I’ve seen this gap in the Catholic experience/educational milieu, if not
religious identity, of the women who run the excellent WIT blog. One
good example is the piece Katie wrote on  Natural Family Planning.

When I thought about responding to this post I wasn’t sure where to
begin, the divide felt so wide. The reasons women in my circles (young
Duke religion/divinity grads in their mid-20s), including myself, chose
to engage Natural Family Planning was that the practice felt like a
radical break from the culture of procreation from which we emerged. Our
educated evangelical Protestantism provided very little narrative on
procreative ethics. We got irreconcilable snapshots we had to reconcile:
don’t have sex until your married, but don’t get married until you’ve
established a career; don’t you dare get pregnant because we will never
forgive you but babies are a blessing; abortion is absolutely wrong but
we actually want children who look just like their parents (and feel
free to keep hundreds of your embryos on ice); wait as long as you can
to have children and then are no limits to what you can do to produce
the children you want. Sexual ethics as a strange mix of
commodification, fetishism with self-production, capitalist
ambition/Protestant work ethic, unreserved use of reproductive
technologies tethered by conservative social ethics. Can you see why we
were confused, and angry? (If you’d like a documented history of this
phenomenon see Amy Laura Hall’s Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.)

Let me be clear, I don’t think anyone I know wishes we had Humane Vitae clawing at our heels as we navigate these waters. HV largely
does not make sense to me for many of the reasons Katie points out in
her post. I’m also aware that I am not bound to consistency nor do we
have to navigate a sense of moral and ethical failure that comes with
questioning or abandoning NFP. I’ve had a few friends who negotiated
horrific pregnancies back to back, or who struggled with debilitating
post-partum depression, whose bodies desperately needed a break. Others
navigate prescription-regulated medical conditions and those medications
would imperil the life of a fetus. While I am often weary of the
failure in my tradition to be able to say anything about sexual ethics I
can appreciate the freedom to say “we tried this and it isn’t working”
or “we need to rethink this in light of these experiences.”

But the ability to engage NFP did feel like a way to give the finger
to every one of those horrifying YAZ commercials that colonized our
understanding of procreative ethics, personhood and self-fulfillment. On
the positive side I think many of us encountered the idea of
hospitality in a new and radical way. So while it is important for me to
drop in on WIT to remember that there’s no golden ticket that’s going
to get us out of complexities of procreation and birth control, and that
the ticket offered by the magisterium comes at much too high a price, I
do wish there were more Protestant voices who attest to the ways in
which NFP provides opportunities to confront our experience of a toxic

Originally posted at Sign on the Window.

Melissa Florer-Bixler

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina and author of How to Have an Enemy and Fire by Night.

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