History: The myth and reality of the absolute authority of the kyrios

(adapted from a paper I wrote for a course on ancient Athenian law)

The ancient Greek kyrios, the head of the household, is, at first glance, a symbol of some backwards time long past.  He is iconic of patriarchal despotism, wielding authority absolute authority over his entire household.  This view, it must be said, plays conveniently into a popular framework of Whig-history, in which the benighted people of “olden days” lived lives of fear and oppression, in contrast with the enlightened contemporary age.  But how closely does the apparent reality of the kyrios in the everyday experiences of the ancient Greeks really line up with this self-congratulatory version of history?  A far cry from a household tyrant who commanded unconditional obedience, the kyrios was subject to checks on his power from without and within the oikos (household).

Even before consulting evidence, the idea of the absolute sovereignty of the kyrios seems implausible to the critical eye.  The viability of unchecked power, upon consideration, is found wanting.  Just as with any ruler, a family patriarch draws his authority from the consent of those under his power.  This is not to suggest that the ancient Greek family unit must, therefore, have been an egalitarian arrangement, by any means.  What this does mean, though, is that there we can be sure that there were many shades of grey within the power of a kyrios over his dependents, even before determining how those shades of grey might manifest.

Within the popular media of ancient Greece, one sees more nuance in the family unit than the Whig-history conception of the kyrios would suggest.  The entire plot of Aristophanes’s “The Wasps” centers on a young man, Bdelycleon, attempting to confine his elderly father, Philocleon, to the house, in order to keep a check on the latter’s addiction to the law court.  It is true Bdelycleon, being an adult, does not fall under the direct control of Philocleon, who, at this point, is no longer his kyrios.  That said, it is notable that Bdelycleon even thinks to lock up his father and set guards around the house (and, indeed, to drape a net over the house).  If such disrespect for the patriarch, even when he no longer wields legal authority over his antagonist, can be displayed, it suggests that the power of the kyrios was never all that absolute and terrifying in the first place.

An obvious objection is that “The Wasps” is not some court case (though it may mimic one, in places), nor a memoir, nor a letter, but rather a comedic play.  Could it not simply portray  a comical, topsy-turvy world, unrelated to reality?  Perhaps, but its very status as comedy is what makes it a more viable source, amongst fictional accounts.  “The Wasps” is not some tragedy, in which Philocleon’s imprisonment at the hands of Bdelycleon is an affront to the gods, or an injustice that plagues the very land, as murder and incest are in “Oedipus.”  The audience is not expected to generate a hubbub of righteous indignation at the thought of a son bossing his father around.  On the contrary, the crux of the play’s humor and appeal lies in the universal experience of the frustration that accompanies dealing with an obviously incompetent authority figure.  In order for “The Wasps” to have succeeded in performance, the Athenian audience must have, on some level, seen the patriarch, and, by extension, his legal office of kyrios, as someone who can be undermined.

But did not the kyrios have the power to decide which babies would live and be raised, and which would be left out to die?  Indeed, exposure, like the office of the kyrios itself, is often taken as another symbol of just how backwards and barbaric “those people” living “back then” were.  Exposure in reality, however, seems to have been quite different from the caricature in the contemporary imagination, in which some stern father or grandfather storms into a birthing chamber, inspects a newborn, and then declares, on the spot, whether the child will live or die.  In Cynthia Patterson’s article “‘Not Worth the Rearing': The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece,” she argues that exposure was not an arbitrary decree, but rather a generally accepted and expected response to certain scenarios.[1]  Deformed children, who would make poor citizens in a pre-industrial society in which farming and warfare were two of the most noble pastimes, were certainly left out for exposure.  Bastards, too, who could not truly share in the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, were left to the elements.  Patterson also notes that the burden of a large family could lead to the exposure of an infant, on the grounds that trying to keep and raise the infant in those circumstances would probably result in the child dying anyway, but not before consuming some of the family’s resources.  There is, of course, the infamous matter of female exposure and infanticide.  However, Patterson takes pains to point out that the typical evidence given for the prevalence of the practice, those being the disparate gender ratio and the perceived sexism of ancient Greece, do not necessarily point to an excess of female exposure and infanticide.

In the image that Patterson sets forth of exposure, the kyrios in is not so much an absolute tyrant, but rather an arbiter of how to allocate household resources.  It is true that this is still hardly an egalitarian and democratic domestic environment, but it does depart notably from the idea of kyrios as filicidal ogre.  Indeed, the conditions under which a child could be exposed were a source of ongoing public discourse,[2] indicating that the measured decision of a kyrios to expose a child was further constrained by societal pressure.

Regarding this societal pressure, Susan Lape, in her paper, “Solon and the Institution of the ‘Democratic’ Family Form,” touches upon the particular pressures that might lead to a bastard being undesirable.  It is not simply the puritanical shock at sex out of wedlock, as we might like to think, that stigmatized bastards in Athenian society, but rather the way in which the society, and systems of inheritance, were constructed.[3]  Traditionally in most societies, and legally in Athens, a bastard was not to be a scion of the wealth or powers of his household.  Lape tells us that, in reaction to the aristocratic chaos that had taken place prior to the arrival of Solon, the famous law code of Athens makes power contingent upon property and citizenship, rather than noble blood.  As such, bestowing equal privileges and consideration onto a bastard as onto a legitimate child conveys the message that it is family ties, rather than financial clout or civic participation, that confer one’s standing.  Such an idea, that a son is worthy of all the admiration of his father before him not because of his continuation of the father’s role in civic life, but simply because he is his father’s son, was abhorrent to the well-to-do democrats of Athens, and thus was stigmatized to the point that a bastard could be exposed with the consent of the oikos and the community, and not simply for the disdain of the kyrios.

The status of women is often taken as evidence of the power of the kyrios over the members of his oikos, locking them within the household, and away from public life.  In opposition to this idea, however, Steven Johnstone argues in his article, “Women, Property, and Surveillance in Classical Athens,” that women were left out of the public sphere not because they were being kept in the house by their kyrios, but because of commerce law.  In the article, Johnstone notes that the kyrios did indeed have a role to play when it came to women and property, but that that role was not as the enforcer of misogynistic social conventions.  Rather, he could serve as a woman’s representative in the marketplace, making the transactions that she could not, and, through these transactions, forming the networks that she could not.[4]  Again, we see that the kyrios was not a household despot, but more of a legal personification of the oikos, and one constrained by social and legal factors at that.

This very distinction is pointed to by David Schaps in his paper, “What Was Free About A Free Athenian Woman?”  It is tempting to the modern observer to write off the kyrios, particularly where women are concerned, as an owner and master in all but name.  However, Schaps points out that, unlike slaves, the charges of a kyrios had legal recourse if they were ill used by their patriarch.[5]  He then goes on to note that the expected activities of a woman were not the cooking, cleaning, and dirty work that modern audiences have come to expect for women living “back then,” but that they were set in charge of the household, and proudly so.[6]  Clearly, the women under the control of a kyrios were not on completely equal footing with him, but they were most certainly not frightened victims, trembling at his approach and clinging to his every dictate.

We see, then, that the will of the kyrios was not absolute, and his dependents were not to be conflated with subjects or property.  Ardent filial piety, which is the cornerstone of a system of absolute patriarchy, is conspicuously absent in popular media of Classical Athens.  Exposure, often taken as the prime example of the unchecked power of the patriarch, was in fact a broader custom, dictated by both social pressure and practical concern, rather than the whim of the kyrios.  Women, far from being property themselves, could act through their kyrios to access the spheres denied them by law, rather than paternal tyranny, and were mistresses of the household themselves.  To top it all off, the availability of legal recourse for the dependents of a kyrios demonstrates that obedience was not an unquestioned right afforded the patriarch, but conditional upon his own competence, and the agreement of his dependents.  In conclusion, the kyrios was not the notorious patriarchal despot of popular legend, but the legal representative and executive of the oikos, more president than dictator.

[1] Cynthia Patterson, “‘Not Worth the Rearing': The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 115 (1985), pp. 103-123

[2] Patterson, 113-114

[3] Susan Lape, “Solon and the Institution of the ‘Democratic’ Family Form” The Classical Journal, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Dec., 2002 – Jan., 2003), pp. 117-139

[4] Steven Johnstone, “Women, Property, and Surveillance in Classical Athens” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2003), pp. 247-274

[5] David Schaps, “What Was Free About a Free Athenian Woman?” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 128 (1998), pp. 161-188

[6] Schaps, 166


RELIGION: How to Be a Lazy Evangelist

In my day to day life, I often encounter Christians who are very eager to tell me all about their god and faith, and why I should subscribe to it, too.  I’m sure that it can be hard to come up with compelling, engaging strategies for talking to people who don’t share your faith, so I’ve put together this handy-dandy guide to being a lazy and annoying evangelist.

1.  Tell them that Jesus has died for their sins.

Know what?  Just quote John 3:16 to them, verbatim.  Despite being surrounded by Christians, and often being raised by Christians, most atheists have never heard anything about Jesus dying for their sins.  If you just tell them that a god they don’t believe in came and died for them, to satisfy rules it made about the punishments it made for various actions and thoughts, many of which atheists don’t think are problematic, they’ll probably just convert there on the spot.

2.  Tell them they’re sinful.

In the unlikely event that just being told that a god they don’t believe in forgives them doesn’t convince someone to follow your faith, it’s probably because they think that they’re not especially sinful.   You have to break them of this notion.  Explain that stealing something, anything, means that they should go to hell.  Likewise for lying about anything.  Ever.  Insist that looking at someone “with lust” is tantamount to adultery, and then inform them that adultery is also a hell-worthy offense.  Go on to say that, in a similar vein, being angry is just as bad as murder, as far as your god is concerned.  They definitely won’t think that this is absurd at all.

3.  Stress that all morality comes from your god.

If the atheist you are talking to hasn’t broken down in penitent tears because their horniness or irritation is enough to get them damned unless they accept your god, then they might continue to say that they don’t think that anything they’ve done is really that bad.  Yes, they’ve lied occasionally, yes, they might have shoplifted when they were fifteen, and yes, they get angry and/or horny sometimes.  Still, they’re likely to point out that they haven’t hurt anyone, or that, if they have, they have tried to fix the damage they’ve done.  Clearly, this simply will not do.

You need to stress to them that it doesn’t matter whether anyone is hurt or not.  What matters is that they’ve disobeyed your god (which they don’t believe in).  Obviously, your god is the source of morality, and any similarities this divine morality might have with other ethics systems is completely coincidental, or a result of everyone secretly knowing that your god is right.  Insist that your morality is absolute and totally makes sense, since it’s from your god, and that their morality is completely arbitrary and useless.

4.  Use Pascal’s Wager.

Much like John 3:16, Pascal’s Wager is a secret weapon that no atheist has ever thought of.  Just point out that not accepting your god carries a penalty of eternal torment in the event that it turns out to be real, and that accepting your god will have no negative consequences if it isn’t real.  This is completely ironclad.  It’s not as though there are other god claims to consider, since it’s either Jehovah or nothing.  Also, converting to your religion wouldn’t entail submission to an external authority, changes in behavior, the potential condemnation of friends and loved ones, repeated monetary contributions to a church, or anything like that.  No, accepting your god is totally a no-strings-attached proposition.

5.  Ask them to explain everything, if they’re so smart.

As everyone knows, your god up and created everything, all on its own.  If anyone doesn’t accept this, then they must adequately explain everything ever, or else you win by default.  They must explain, in detail, the origins of the universe, of the planets, of life on Earth, of biodiversity, and of your religion, to name a few things.  Anything they don’t know is automatically a point for you.  Anything they do have an answer for, but which isn’t detailed enough for you is also a point for you.  All you need to do is state that your god made everything, and you don’t see any other possibility, as this will be sufficient.  You do not need to explain the process by which your god did any of these things, or why your god doesn’t need a source, or anything like that.

6. Tell them what’s going on in their mind.

The real reason that atheists don’t believe in your god isn’t because they don’t see sufficient proof of its existence, or because they think that their lives are just fine without your god and your church, or anything like that.  No, it’s probably that they hate your god.  You should let them know that you’re onto them.  If they insist that you’re wrong, and provide some other reason as to why they don’t follow your god, just shout them down and contend that no, really, it’s just because they hate god (you could also add that they’re in love with sin).  People love being told what they’re feeling by complete strangers, so this will hopefully make them want to join your church.

7.  If all else fails, tell them to read the Bible “with an open mind.”

While I know that this is a long shot, there is a chance that an atheist won’t be convinced to worship your god (which they don’t believe in) by you telling them that it forgives them for all their sins (many of which they don’t think are bad things), that things that they’re okay with totally are worthy of hell and that things are good or bad not based on their perceived harm, but just on the grounds of the dictates of your god (which, again, they don’t believe in), and about how following your god is a no-lose situation (except for all the lifestyle changes you demand that they make, and the authority and dictates you demand they submit to, and the money they’ll be expected to dish out for your church, not to mention that the scenario inexplicably assumes the potential existence of only one out of the myriad of gods they don’t believe in), and after you have insisted that your god is real by default and that all their objections are moot and that you know their thoughts and feelings better than they do, despite just meeting them.

If it should come to pass that all of your other super-convincing arguments have failed, urge them to read your holy book, the Bible, with an open mind.  That’s not asking much, is it?  It’s not like the Bible is a huge, dense book, and it’s certainly not as if they have anything else they’d rather do than humor you.  If they drag their feet, you can always just tell them to read the gospels (again, with an open mind).  If they’ve already read it, tell them to read it again, and stress that they must have an open mind.  That way, if they read it and aren’t convinced that the Christian god is real, and that they must worship it in the way that your church wants, then they just didn’t actually have an open mind.



GENDER AND SEXUALITY: The whimsical folly of Steven Crowder, the self-styled life coach

So, Steven Crowder is back, with more relationship commentary that is so saturated with smug condescension that I have an urge to vomit just thinking about it.  For those of you who don’t recognize the name, this is the fellow who wrote an equally smarmy piece a while back about he and his wife had waited until they were married to have sex, and how awesome that makes them.  Well, now he’s considerate enough to tell us all why we should go out and get married pronto.

From the onset, Crowder makes sure that the reader can’t stand him.  After a brief opening paragraph in which he reminds us “Hey!  You know that super-smug article about abstinence until marriage?  I wrote that!  I’m that guy!” Crowder moves on to state that he makes “no apologies” for his stance on sex and marriage.  Well, okay.  Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.  People weren’t bothered so much by Crowder’s personal choice to put off sex until marriage, people were bothered by his personal choice to write an eight hundred and fifty word self-congratulatory article about it.  The people who liked the article already agreed with him, so they wouldn’t want an apology, and the people who were annoyed with the article don’t give a shit about anyone’s ability to go without sex.

Then, he asserts that “As a matter of fact, most of you should be apologizing to me.”  Why, you might ask, do we owe some douchebag an apology?  Well, apparently, the benefits of marriage haven’t been proclaimed sufficiently enough for his nibs.  He goes on to spend a few paragraphs lamenting how marriage is portrayed as a killjoy.  While yeah, various media outlets get a lot of mileage out of the “wah, my spouse is frustrating!” trope (and have been getting mileage out of it as long as there have been media outlets and marriage), that happens with lots of things.  We don’t blame unemployment on TV and movies that show people who hate their jobs.  College is regularly portrayed as a place where the homework monster will eat every waking hour of your life, but we’ve got record enrollment.  Why is it that marriage (which isn’t exactly disappearing) needs this special defense?  Well, Crowder has taken it upon himself to give us some hard data on why it is that we should all get married.

First off, Crowder promises us that being married will make us wealthier!  Hey, I like wealth!  How does he support this claim?  Why, with a research brief from the Heritage Foundation, whose stated mission is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies.”  I was tempted to summarily dismiss him and move on, but I stopped to take a look through what the Heritage Foundation had to say, and know what I found?  A whole lot of correlation left out in the hopes of being mistaken for causation.

Yes, married couples tend to be better off than their unmarried counterparts.  That said, weddings in America cost an average of about $26K, so it’s less likely that marriage makes you wealthy, and more likely that having a decent amount of wealth allows couples to drop $26K on getting married.  Young people (i.e. folks in their twenties) who are cohabitating often can’t afford to spend that kind of money, and when you’re not sure where the winds of fate and grad school might take you, it can be prudent to hold off on getting married until you know where you’re settling down, and you know that your partner’s goals are compatible with yours.

The second “point” Crowder makes is that children perform better when their parents are married.  After making this claim, he backs it up with (drumroll, please) still more correlation being passed off as causation by the Heritage Foundation and our old friends over at the Family Research Council.  Frankly, this isn’t all that surprising.  Children perform best when they are living in the most socially acceptable environment, enjoy a stable home life, and have caregivers who can rely on one another and work together.  Who could have seen that coming?  What this says to me isn’t “go and get married!  DO IT NOW!”  Rather, this information leads me to the conclusion “only have children that you have planned for and are well prepared to take care of.”

Moving on, Crowder excitedly proclaims that married people have more frequent and pleasurable sex than non-married people (which he backs up with some info from Maggie Gallagher over at the National Organization for Marriage), and then he goes on to say that it’s even better for those who wait until marriage to have sex.  I’ll buy the frequency of sex thing.  Of course you can have more sex when your romantic partner lives with you than when they live elsewhere, or don’t even exist.  As for the quality of the sex, that’s not so much of a stretch, either.  Who do we usually have great sex with?  People we really like.  Who do we usually marry?  People we really like.

Regarding this whole “It’s even better if you wait!” thing, though, I’m a bit more skeptical.  The trouble with measuring sexual satisfaction is that it’s entirely subjective, and based on comparison within your own experience.  If you’ve only ever had sex with one person, then that’s the best sex you’ve ever had.  Add onto that the fact that people who wait until marriage to have sex are routinely told that theirs will be the best sex ever, and all those filthy fornicating whores out there will never truly be happy, of course they’re going to say that their sex lives are great (and hey, if it’s working for them, whatever).  If you only ever give someone an Oreo, and make sure that you talk up Oreos all their life and stress to them that all other cookies suck, then they’ll probably think Oreos are the best cookie, too.

Fourth on Crowder’s list is a statement that if you are married,  “you won’t be such a pathetic sloth.”  Why does he say that?  Well, according to Crowder (he doesn’t bother to add any references to social conservative think tanks this time), married people are more likely to be employed, and tend to make more money.  This is more, say it with me, correlation being passed off as causation.  When responding to his first point, I pointed out that it’s not that marriage magically makes you wealthier, but that being financially secure makes people more likely to marry.  Another factor is probably that lots of people are putting off marriage until later in life, when they’re far more likely to have a good job.

Now we come to the fifth and final of Crowder’s marvelous revelations, that being that being married makes you live longer and healthier.  Correlation being passed off as causation!  Take a drink!  Seriously, though, I can see how this might be the case.  Having someone watching your back will probably help your health, and having a companion makes exercise more fun, I often find.  That said, it is not simply the state of being married that does this, but routinely seeing and sharing time with someone you really like.

The name of Crowder’s article is “A man’s top 5 reasons to grow up and get married.”  He asserts (in a manner that offends both men and women, I think) that being married will suddenly make men productive and clean, because they will “have a dame whip them into shape.”  At the end of the piece, Crowder likens marriage to “a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you’ve ever had.”  Throughout the article, Crowder makes lots of arguments as to why men should go and get married.  Here’s the thing, though:  Marriage isn’t just something you up and decide to do.  Being married isn’t a state of being you find yourself in after a trip down to the post office to fill out a form.  It isn’t something you do on a whim.

Carrying on from that, your spouse does not magically appear once you fill out this nonexistent marriage opt-in form to clean up after you, feed you, hang out with you, support you, etc.  Marriage is a part of a larger relationship, a relationship with a real person with their own thoughts, dreams, and feelings.  Yes, divorce rates are high.  Yes, there are lots of people who are in abusive or unsatisfying marriages.  That’s why it’s important that people these days are thinking long and hard about who they want to become legally attached to, and taking their time in getting to know every aspect of them.

In closing, consider where all this advice about marriage and how great and successful it makes you is coming from:  An occasional Fox News commentator and YouTuber who has been married all of six months, who backs his statements up with misleading reports from right-wing think tanks and hate groups, who seems to think that what matters is not who you marry, but that you marry, and who is convinced that the only way his or anyone else’s partner will be happy is if they have nothing to compare the sex with.  Yes, marriage has lots of good things to it, but Steven Crowder is not the one to champion them.


See also:  Brute Reason’s coverage of the same.


GENDER AND SEXUALITY: Seriously, though. Who pays?

Recently, over at Brute Reason, there was a post about how feminism isn’t about who picks up the check after dinner.  She makes some great points in the piece, and it’s well worth reading.  That said, there is still the matter of who is expected to pay for a date.

The traditional proscription is that “the man pays.”  This, as you may have gathered, has several problems with it (many covered as well in the aforementioned Brute Reason piece).  For one thing, it’s quite a heteronormative thing, to assert that not only is there a man, but that “the man” is a position within a relationship.

Even if you overlook the implications of the statement, it becomes useless for couples who don’t fit into the monogamous, heterosexual paradigm.  What if the people in question are a lesbian couple?  There’s no man in that scenario to pay for their date.  How about two gay men?  Then we’ve got two men.  Are they supposed to pay for the other, for their own share, or do they both pay the full amount of the bill (quite a good deal for the venue in which they are dating)?  Carrying on, what if a non-monogamous group is going out on a date together?  There might be many men, or no men.  Oh, it’s so confusing.

Now, statistically, we’re probably dealing with a heterosexual couple.  Frankly, though, that doesn’t clear up the problem.  If the male partner in a heterosexual pair is expected to pay for every single date, that’s going to create quite a disparity.  On the one hand, it might make his female partner feel uncomfortable, being treated to dinner/a movie/an outing every time they’re together, since lots of people feel that they owe reciprocity to people who have given them things.  In most cases, this just means that you give a gift in return, or help that person out.  In a scenario in which only a man can pay for a date, though, reciprocity must come in another form, which can be attention, affection, or, most notoriously, sex.  So, to summarize, insisting that every single date must be paid for by the male half of a heterosexual couple can lead to his female companion feel pressured to act on feelings she doesn’t really have out of duty.

Another problem with “the man pays” command is that it burdens men.  Want to spend time with that nice young woman again?  I hope you’ve got $40 to spare.  Over the course of maybe a year and a half relationship, that can really add up.  In an age in which it was a safe assumption that men had money and women didn’t, I suppose that kind of works out, but when both partners are likely on similar footing, this seems needlessly burdensome.

Up until this point, we’ve been assuming the best of intentions, but this whole “the man pays” thing does open the door to potential exploitation on both sides.  Harkening back to the trouble of women feeling pressured, there is good reason for their apprehension.  There are plenty of men out there who would not hesitate to claim that they are owed a woman’s affection because they have paid for dinner.  On the other side of the coin, I imagine that there are plenty of women who will continue to see a man as long as he is still buying her things, but who are effectively just using him.

So, what is to be done about this?  Clearly, someone has to be paying for all these dinners, coffees, movies, rounds of mini-golf, etc.  You could always, you know, talk about it, which is, I know, a scary concept for a lot of people.  It’s your partner’s birthday?  Offer to take them out to dinner.  Has your partner had a rough day?  You can pay.  When the situations are reversed, they can cover the bill.  Make twice as much money as your partner?  Pay for dinner twice as often as they do.  What I’m trying to stress here is that one size fits all declarations about dating aren’t especially useful, except for one:  Do what works best for your situation.


GENERAL/GENDER AND SEXUALITY: What I’ve Learned Wearing a Kilt

As some may have picked up from the name of my blog (or from, you know, meeting me in person) I wear a kilt every day.  I have a total of seven, although one of them is a nice kilt that I save for special occasions (nice dinners, conferences, etc.)Anyway, the point is that I wear a kilt on any given day, except when I’m compelled by some obligation to be in pants instead.

Now, I wear my kilts for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, it’s a visible representation of a part of my cultural heritage.  For another, it helps me stand out.  Everyone remembers “kilt guy.”  Last, but certainly not least, I find kilts to be more comfortable than pants.

An added benefit (or curse, you can decide which) of my wearing a kilt is that it has given me some insight into the experiences of women and trans* individuals.  I wouldn’t say that I have a full understanding of such experiences, by any stretch of the imagination, but just as the Eleusinian Mysteries gave Mycenean Greeks a greater insight into the meaning of the legend of Demeter and Persephone, so too does my microcosm lend me a partial understanding.  On that note, I am rather displeased with what I am increasingly finding to be the state of things.

Catcalls, wolf whistles, and general crossing of sexual boundaries

When women remark that they are quite displeased with the street harassment, a common rebuttal from some men is “Yeah, well, I’d love it if people said stuff like that to me!”  While I cannot be certain about these claims, I’m fairly certain they’re bullshit.  Why do I think this?  Well, it’s because I’m a man who has been receiving sexual comments and catcalls for a few years now, and I myself have certainly not enjoyed it.

I’ll admit that I was somewhat amused the first few times a woman came up to me and asked me what I was wearing under my kilt.  That said, it quickly got old.  I don’t dread the question, but I don’t particularly enjoy having to explain to complete strangers that I am, in fact, wearing underwear.  While the question is definitely less unwelcome when coming from an attractive young woman, it is a bit of an overstep even then.    The most extreme case of this that I ever got was when I was walking down the street and someone on the other side of the road called across to me to ask whether I was wearing anything under the kilt.

The whole “people don’t wear underwear under their kilts!” thing is a fairly prevalent stereotype, but I’m not entirely sure where it came from.  Wherever it came from, though, complete strangers seem to think that it’s something that they should ask about.  Occasionally, people will tell me that I’m wearing a kilt “wrong” because I’ve got underwear on underneath it.  Apparently the Supreme Overlord of Kiltiness sent out a memo that you must go commando in order to wear a kilt, and I was the only one who didn’t get it.  Still, I am dressed in a rather stand-out way, and people are curious about the cultural stereotypes they’ve heard.  While not especially pleasant or appropriate, questions about my underwear are fairly understandable.

What isn’t, though, is when someone catcalls me.  Several times, I’ve had people shout at me from passing cars (the most notable being a fellow in Wisconsin who called out “Hey, girl, wanna get fucked?!”  I’m not sure if he was trying to insult me by calling me a girl, or if he honestly believed me to be a girl…  With a beard.)  It’s usually not all that dramatic.  More often it’s “nice dress!” “nice legs!” or a whistle.  I get similar comments from people on foot.  Now, I may be mistaken, but the tone never strikes me as that of a friendly compliment.  Rather, they tend to sound aggressive and/or mocking.  If this is the sort of thing that women are referring to when they talk about catcalls and street harassment, then no, they’re not just “overreacting to a harmless compliment.”

Attempted shaming

Perhaps the most frustrating sort of interaction I have while wearing my kilts is not the catcalling, nor the personal questions, nor the rather widespread belief that having the most basic cultural knowledge will impress me into prioritizing folks for monetary favors.  No, the thing that bothers me most is when people point at me, jeer, and shout “he wearin’ a dress!”

I’m not bothered by the suggestion that I am wearing women’s clothing.  Frankly, the reason that I only ever present as masculine is that I like having a beard, and I don’t think I have the a good figure for a feminine presentation.  If I thought that I could pull it off, I would have few qualms about sometimes presenting as a woman, and those that I would have would not be from an aversion to gender-nonconformity.

One thing that does offend me a little is that the people who say this often can’t tell the difference between a dress and a skirt.  It isn’t a very complex distinction.  I’m also rather irked at the cultural illiteracy of these people.  Clearly, even the panhandlers who stop me to ask for money know what a kilt is, and it’s a fairly iconic garment.  Even if it doesn’t make sense why someone is wearing a kilt on their day to day errands, people know that Mel Gibson wore a (garment not unlike a) kilt in “Braveheart.”

The thing that really, really offends me about people shouting that I am wearing a dress, pointing, and laughing, though, is that they seem to think that gender-nonconformity is something to be mocked.  As I said earlier, I present pretty much only as masculine, but what if I didn’t?  Trying to mock and shame a person for what you think their gender presentation is, even if you’re too incompetent to actually figure it out, is incredibly rude.  I’m not offended that some people think I dress like a woman.  I’m offended that there are rude, tactless, foul people who think I shouldn’t.

In conclusion, here are some of the things I have learned from wearing a kilt.  Some of them I knew already, and I simply had confirmed, and others are new insights.  I have learned that harassment is, in fact, a real thing, and not just a misinterpretation of “friendly compliments.”  I have learned that people think that they are entitle to personal information about me.  I have learned that some people are utterly ignorant, rude, and tactless.  I have learned that transphobia definitely exists and is definitely problematic (if painfully imprecise).  These are some of the things that I’ve learned while wearing a kilt, and these are some of the things that anger me.


GENDER AND SEXUALITY: This is not okay.

It frustrates me that I need to do this.  Really, it does.  But, as is painfully common throughout history, my hand has been forced by some remarkable bastard.

Okay, guys.  This is not okay.  The whole post is worth reading, but most specifically, I am referring to the transcript.  In this, the age of feminism, I sometimes here people denying that sexism and sexual objectification are still a thing.  Many men, and even some women, seem to be under the impression that sexism is entirely “in the past,” from a time when women couldn’t vote or hold property (the same way racism totally doesn’t exist anymore, because I can’t own a black person).  Well, that’s not the case.  Let’s take a look at all the wrongness going on in this young woman’s encounter with this magnificent specimen of a miscreant.

Assumed familiarity

The troublesome centerpiece of this episode opens his interaction with our protagonist by walking up while muttering to himself that she is a beautiful redhead, and then proceeds to tell her that her hair is gorgeous.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with complimenting people, in my opinion.  That said, there is a right way to go about it.  Maybe one might want to open with “excuse me,” or that old favorite, “hello.”  After you have greeted the person you wish to compliment, then you may tactfully make your remark.  Ideally, this encounter would have gone “Hello.  Sorry to bother you, I just wanted to say that I think your hair looks very nice,” at which time this man should have smiled and walked away.

That’s not went down, though.  Instead, this living, breathing MadTV character foregoes greetings and pleasantries entirely and dives straight into familiar conversation.  Immediately after his eloquent opening, he invites this total stranger whom he has met on an El platform late at night out on a date.  Then he gives her his number, unprovoked and despite her visible disinterest, and later asks after the sexual preferences of this young woman.

Not taking “no” for an answer

You will notice that our protagonist does not show any interest in conversing with the man who is accosting her.  She only acknowledges him after he has directly addressed her, and even then with a one word reply, delivered without enthusiasm.  While the words “I do not want to speak with you, please go away” were not uttered (at this point), the feelings of our protagonist were crystal clear:  She was uninterested.  Since she didn’t (and doesn’t) owe this stranger even that amount of attention, this should have been his cue to go away.  But instead of leaving, he just presses ahead, at which point the protagonist outright says “no, thank you,” both to the spontaneous date proposal and the exchange of phone numbers.

You know how people say “oh, harassment isn’t real!  If women don’t want to talk to people, they should say something!”  This is why that’s bullshit.  Here is a woman who, from the onset, he had no reason to expect attention from, whom he continued to pester even after she repeatedly told him that no, she was not interested.  That is not “flirting,” or “meeting new people.”  That is harassment.


When the protagonist of our story straight up confronts the strange man talking at her on the platform about his rather off-putting attempt to pick her up, he outright denies that that was his intention.  Never mind that he walked up to her, told her he thought her hair was gorgeous, offered to take her out to a bar or restaurant, and tried to GIVE HER HIS NUMBER.  So, to summarize, he said to this woman that it was ridiculous of her to suggest he was trying to pick her up, despite it being obvious that he was, in fact, trying to pick her up.  Proceeding off from there,  he attributes this impression to overexposure to feminism, claiming that she needs to “get all that out of [her] mind.”

After scoffing at the idea that he was trying to pick a young woman up, and then calling the very idea of such a thing preposterous, this rude fellow has the nerve to “mansplain” that he, in fact, is the one who is the oppressed party in this scenario.  Once he has established that it is he, and not the protagonist, who is suffering, he asks if she is a lesbian, since that is apparently the only explanation for her disinterest in speaking with him.

This all goes beyond dismissive.  This is downright patronizing and offensive.  Throughout the entire exchange, this man tries to tell the narrator that the reality she is experiencing is, in fact, just a trick of the mind, and that she should just let him dictate what is and is not real.  What this is is a form of gaslighting, and it is not okay.

There’s plenty of other things wrong going on here, mind you.  The men on the train itself, the old man she encountered, and the handsy police officers, for instance.  Also, there is the matter of the irksome fellow in question simultaneously denying having victimized the narrator and insisting that he, in fact, is the real victim in the scenario.  However, the things I mentioned above are the three main offenses, in my opinion.  When someone is denying that sexism and/or patriarchy exist, just think back to this incident, and the myriad of similar incidents that happen every day.


RELIGION: Religion =/= affinity

                I recently attended a Veritas Forum event here at Northwestern University, entitled “What Gods Do We Worship Now?” with the subtitle “Challenging the Religions of Culture.”  The Veritas speaker was one N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, Christian apologist, and theologian.  He made his argument in two parts.  The first part:  American culture has turned its back on the Abrahamic god (which made me wonder what American culture he was familiar with), replacing it with the worship of Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars.  He supported this argument by saying that people are really into sex, money, and power, and since Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars were, at one time, worshipped as gods of those things, we are worshipping those gods too.  The second part of Wright’s argument was that Jesus is/was the physical incarnation of wisdom/love, and that putting him first in your life will give you great results.

                Now, as you might expect, I took issue with just about every part of this.  Tasked with bringing a question from the SSA, I asked how Wright could justify his stance that the affinity for sex, money, and power is a replacement for belief in the Abrahamic god when, for over 1500 years, the Abrahamic god has been widely worshipped, and we’ve had the exact same behavioral problems then as we do today (I backed this up with what Wright described as “the most eloquent litany of Christian folly” he’d ever heard).   What was brought up most often in the post-Veritas discussions that I attended, though, was the question of what constitutes “religion,” “worship,” or a “god.”

                At these discussions, I repeatedly pointed out that there is no ritual veneration attached to sex, money, and power in contemporary America.  Similarly, while we can all agree that those things exist, people almost never attribute supernatural characteristics to them, unless prompted by other religious beliefs (for example, the conservative Christian belief that homosexuality is inherently sinful, because of a prohibition believed to be put in place by their god).  Going off of that, the pursuit of sex, money, and power does not entail any moral requirements.  Religious theorists typically characterize a religion as being made up of those three things, often handily abbreviated to “code, creed, and culture.”

                So, lacking those three Cs of religion, in what sense can sex, money, and power be considered “gods” or “religions.”  The well-meaning  Christians I talked to after the forum said that, of course, Wright didn’t actually mean that sex, money, and power are really gods, and people don’t worship those things like one would worship their god.  Wright was just using an analogy, I have been repeatedly assured, to say that some people are putting sex, money, and power at the top of their lists of priorities.

                That begs the question, in my mind, what was the point of all that?  I don’t need some British theologian to cross the pond just to tell me that folks are prioritizing sex, money, and/or power.  Based on the list of sponsors for the event (1001 flavors of Christian evangelists), as well as Wright’s previous work, I get the feeling that the religion/god analogy was chosen to specifically cast Christianity and sex, money, and power as mutually exclusive adversaries (despite centuries of evidence).

                Well, that’s poppycock.  As I mentioned above, sex, money, and power only count as gods and the pursuit of them only constitutes a religion by the loosest of definitions.  By this logic, the Catholic Church is a corporation.  The Pope is the CEO, archbishops are regional managers, churches are franchises, priests are store managers, congregants are investors, prayer is the currency, and “salvation” is the product.  In a similar vein, maybe I should say that the Anglican Church is actually a university.  The English monarch is the school president, archbishops are deans, bishops are department heads, priests are professors, deacons are grad students, and congregants are undergrads.

                This has not been just a flight of fancy.  Rather, I hope that it will illustrate how absurd the Veritas argument is.  The Catholic Church is a corporation and the Anglican Church is a university to the same extent that money is a god or that having sex is a religion.  If you strip all of these things of their functions and just arrange all the components in the same configuration, then I guess they do kind of look the same, but they are entirely different animals.


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