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Sex and Secularism

An excerpt from Joan Wallach Scott’s latest book

An interview between Judith Butler and Joan Wallach Scott can be found here.

As I have studied it here, secularism is not an objective description of institutions and policies but rather a polemical term whose meanings change in the different contexts in which it is deployed. In this book I have tracked the changes in those meanings and the political uses to which the discourse of secularism has been put. The questions historians and others must ask are not what has secularism always meant and where can it be found, but instead what work does the appeal to secularism do in historically specific circumstances, how does it organize our perception, and with what effects and to what ends?

The question to ask about gender is similar because the categories of male and female, masculine and feminine, are also mutable, defined within particular contexts of nation building, racial identities, religious teachings, and social and political movements. Gender and the sex and sexuality to which it refers — and whose meanings it produces — are mutable concepts because they refer to an intractable psychic dilemma: there is no ultimate sense that can be made of differences of sex. Appeals to timeless, natural, or biologically determined differences between men and women are attempts to assuage the anxiety that comes with this indeterminacy and to provide a model for social and political organization. Gender does not ascribe its social roles based on the imperatives of physical bodies; rather, it is a historically and culturally variable attempt to provide a grid of intelligibility for sex, and — beyond sex — for the intelligibility of systems of political rule. It is not that gender and politics as established entities come into contact and so influence one another. Rather, it is that the instability of each looks to the other for certainty: political systems invoke what is deemed the immutability of gender to legitimize asymmetries of power; those political invocations then “fix” differences of sex, in that way denying the indeterminacy that troubles both sex and politics.

This book has tracked the mutually constitutive operations of gender and politics by examining the discourse of secularism from its nineteenth-century anticlerical origins to its current deployment in anti-Muslim campaigns. As the historical contexts and targets of secularists changed, so did representations of sexual difference. This was particularly true of the status and situation of women. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cultural and racial superiority of women in Western nation-states to their counterparts in the past and in the colonies had to do with their loving consent to subordination, the acceptance of their role as childbearers and domestic managers, providing the healing antidote (the “haven in a heartless world”) to the ravages of politics and the market in which their fathers, husbands, and sons toiled. The distinction between the private and the public, female and male spheres of activity, was central to this representation, as was the insistence that women’s sexuality be directed exclusively to procreation. A contrast with the promiscuous sexuality of women of other races and cultures (slaves, “Hindoos,” Arabs, Africans, Muslims) helped secure this vision of the superior morality of white Christian women. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gender equality was not a “primordial” feature of the supposed religious neutrality of modern Western nation-states; gender inequality was.

In the twenty-first century, the public/private divide has disappeared, and women in the West are depicted as sexually liberated, free to fulfill their desires however they wish, and this is said to be a measure of the equality brought by “secularism” — by which is sometimes meant a greater openness to a diversity of sexual practices (“sexual democracy”), sometimes an antireligious stance, sometimes an explicitly Protestant notion, and usually a liberal conception of freedom as autonomous, self-willed, individual action. Exactly how this constitutes equality — and in what realms — is rarely spelled out. Indeed, I have been arguing that this vision of sexual emancipation is not the realization of a universal freedom but is instead a historically specific creation: a Western middle-class notion of what it means to be free. It is, moreover, a freedom that does not necessarily confer equality — the asymmetry of the difference of sex continues both in the most intimate of relationships as well as in the marketplace of jobs and ideas. It is only in the contrast with Muslim women’s fate (they are depicted as sexually oppressed, victims of male violence, deprived entirely of agency in matters personal and religious) that the idea achieves its sense. In the extremity of the French case, an entire vision of national identity is said to rest on the visual availability to men of women’s sexualized bodies — hardly an indicator of equality in any structural sense of the term but defined as such in the programs endorsed by even some socialist politicians.

The contrast of East/West is a feature of the discourse of secularism, from its earliest formulations to the present. There are continuities and changes. The continuities have to do with the centrality of sexual difference (I have elsewhere referred to this as “sexularism”), with a particular focus on the place of women, and with the liberal notion of individual choice or consent. There is also a persistent Christian dimension in this discourse. The changes have to do with the substantive content of those concepts: from sex in the interests of the reproduction of family, race, and nation to sex as the fulfillment of individual desire; from women as private, passionate creatures to women as public agents exercising free choice; from an emphasis on the complementarity of the sexes to “equality” between them. These idealized visions are secured less by references to the psychic and structural realities of the lives of men and women than by contrasts with an equally fantasized foreign “other” —  the Muslim woman of the East. Always deprived of individual agency, she was first presented as the embodiment of wasteful sexuality, now as its unnatural repression. She is promiscuously aggressive in the nineteenth-century depictions, now more often described as the passive instrument of her terrorist fathers and brothers. Her purported state of abjection is the antithesis of whatever “equality” means in the West — indeed, Muslim women’s purported abjection functions to define Western equality in general terms, stressing some things (the right to vote, access to education, sexual freedom of choice) and not others (economic inequality, glass ceilings, misogyny, domestic violence).

Despite a vast body of literature that has contested these images as stereotypes that misrepresent the experience and the agency of Muslim women and the freedom of women in the Christian secular West, the discourse of secularism continues to offer them as proof of  the superiority of  “our” way of  life. The power of this discourse matters because of its influence on politicians and the media, as well as on ordinary people.

The aim of this book has been to offer a more nuanced understanding of the operations of the discourse of secularism, a critique of its exaggerated claims and their political implications. Above all, I think it is important to see how invested the current discourse has been in contrast to a caricatured “East,” and then to ask how we would understand secularism’s claims if they were detached from that contrast and treated as products of history. What would we see that is now obscured? What difficulties and intransigencies would become apparent?

First, of course, we would see that secularism is not an eternal set of principles but a polemical term put to work differently in different contexts. Next, gender would be understood as the insistent but ultimately vain attempt to resolve the enduring conundrum presented by the difference of sex. Its connection to politics would also become clear as the preferred solution to what Claude Lefort deemed the indeterminacy of representative government (see chapter 3). My analysis of the history of the discourse of secularism shows how politics invokes gender and, reciprocally, how gender is secured by politics. Gender and politics have used each other to establish their legitimacy and to enforce their rules, justifying inequalities as natural phenomena — inequalities that extend beyond gender to race, class, ethnicity, and religion. Untangling the operations of this interconnection in the discourse of secularism has been for me a critical project, and not only because it exposes the way certain claims about equality have served to perpetuate inequality. What is also at stake in insisting on the historicity of this discourse, and on the indeterminacy of the meanings of gender and democratic politics upon which it rests, is that those meanings are perpetually and irresistibly open to change. In this way, critique allows us to think otherwise about the relationship of past to present and about the difficulties we face in acting to realize more just and egalitarian futures.

Excerpted from SEX AND SECULARISM by Joan Wallach Scott. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by Permission.

Joan Wallach Scott is professor emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and adjunct professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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