For some strange reason, the subjects of sex and religion pop up in classroom discussions a lot these days. Mostly, it seems like every discussion turns into talk about religion and the way it is seen and the way it really is etc. These conversations lead to no solid conclusion but it seems to be some kind of a trend. This is my observation and it sometimes interests me and worries me all at once.
What worries me most is their underlying smug belief that they have this perfect religion that is supreme and above all others. Perhaps, I read too much into their expressions. Perhaps, this is what most people are. I insist that we must not judge somebody for what they are and I try not to do so myself but I worry sometimes. It frightens me too. Am I afraid of religion? I don’t think so. Am I afraid of what I’ve been told is narrow-mindedness? Perhaps. But then what is narrow-mindedness, really? Am I narrow-minded in my fear?
Maybe we all draw the line somewhere. Maybe that is how we survive in our minds. The absolute conviction they have might frighten me but maybe they need it to understand themselves. When it will bother them, they will find something else to believe in just as strongly. Maybe they will believe in themselves. Maybe they will believe in something I can’t even think of. To each her/his own.
Sometimes we talk about perception of the body. These are also very interesting discussions (and less frightening). I have a class mostly of young women (and two young men) who are very opinionated about everything. Gender perception is also considered and they talk about it whenever they’re not talking about religion.
I have been thinking about the sexualization of girls in the context of the body. I think this is a subject that needs to be discussed. Recently, I realized that many people use the term “hot” to describe a woman’s appearance. In a comment on facebook, my cousin innocently remarked “Apa (sister), you are looking hot in this picture.” My mother also commented on the same picture asking me what hot really means. That actually made me think about it. It does have a sexual connotation but it is used so commonly that nobody ever thinks about it much.
So what is hot, really? I think it means to be sexually attractive. Why is that so easy to say here in Pakistan where in some circles, women actually believe a vagina is best ignored. It makes no sense. This took me to the idea of sexualization (make sexual, endow with sex, attribute sex to) and it seemed like something to think about.
So I googled it and found some material. A commentary on the CNN World Edition led me to the American Psychological Association’s website which particularily interested me. According to the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls’ report:
There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
I feel the relevance of this study in what I’m trying to understand. “Hot” used for women in this context makes sense to me. The question that arises is that why can’t women just be “pretty” or “beautiful” anymore? I’m not assuming that those words did not objectify women (or children or men) but they sound harmless enough when compared to people being sexual objects.
In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.
This brings me back to female bodies. I am ignoring art-history here and just considering pop-culture (which I believe is a phenomenon not unrelated to art-history but that is another story altogether). We speak a funny language. We express lust so casually. Oh, we say, she is SO HOT – without batting an eyelash. And then we get on with our lives without giving much thought to what we have really said. Or implied.
I don’t mean to nit-pick here but it’s something to think about. I believe people have the right to do whatever they want as long as they don’t force others to do the same. But then the question of social responsibility arises and everything becomes murky or too intense.
Which brings me back to religion-talk in the classroom. We want to be open-minded and accept every opinion and consider every side. However, sometimes, a line is crossed and strange arguments pop up which leave me flustered. As an educator, it is difficult to negotiate between the various belief structures of my students and the need to help them break away from preconceived notions. It is a daunting task that keeps me on my toes. But it also drains me but that is an acceptable price for what I’m trying to accomplish - guide my students to an understanding of themselves that would help them articulate their words and pictures. I suppose that is the best I can do. If the talk of religion and sex helps them, then so be it. To each her own, really.
Disclaimer: I realize a lot of words I have used in this post are quite cliched. I am just recording my concerns and observations. By no means do I intend to enforce “social” laws based on my own understanding on my students or other people. Also, I am heavily medicated for anxiety and whatever I have written comes from a place far, far away from the rest of me. However, it will help me function normally tomorrow and that’s what counts.