Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Whoever coined the phrase “control of women’s bodies” had a moment of pure genius; there is no phrase more guaranteed to make a man feel uncomfortable (based on a careful randomized controlled trial of my gut feelings). And its use in this article is perfectly placed, right after some gentle illustration/introduction to the supposed conservative position and its subsequent takedown.

Except the argument doesn’t quite hold together. The article seems to postulate that sisters and by extension women in the household are expected to do more gender-stereotyped tasks, such as cleaning, cooking, sweeping, etc. And this is based on one study. And apparently exposure to gender stereotyping translates into conservative views later in life, which actually stem from the desire to control women’s sexuality.

What about sweeping out the garage in order to attempt some wood carving? What about helping cook freezer meals? What about helping my mom assemble railroad ties in order to create raised beds for a garden? My sisters and I have all done these together.

The thing about most such tasks, and why they are terrible examples of gender stereotyping, is that they are actually rather neutral. Men and women interchangeably swap tasks when need arises, only specializing due to traditional societal roles. The traditional category of “housework” isn’t so easy to define after all; the tasks I cite above wouldn’t fall under housework, but aren’t they? Maintaining the garden outside to feed the household sounds rather like preparing food in an even earlier stage, which would usually fall under housework. Many such tasks are still only stereotyped as such because researchers and journalists presume they are, and perpetuate erroneous thinking. The difficulty with category assignation isn’t the first difficulty that the study doesn’t quite address. The researchers themselves admit to another sizable limitation of the study; no control for the gender of the siblings does not inspire great confidence.

The next example of erroneous thinking in this article relates to the immediate jump to control of women’s sexuality. The article bridges the gap with some fuzzy statements about religious tradition seeking to control women’s sexuality, and then even accusing Mr. Obama of perpetuating silly overbearing fatherly roles. The religious tradition link doesn’t quite make sense. Which religious tradition is this? To be equally fuzzy, only one, possibly two commandments in the usual suspect, Judaeo-Christian tradition, speak of coveting a neighbor’s wife outright (which seems like more of a man-shaming offense than anything else; after all, it’s not as if the commandment tells women not to covet others’ husbands, which suggests men are the focus not because they are the solution but because they are the problem). One would presume that the practice of male celibacy is overt control of male sexuality…where are the complaints re patriarchy trying to control male sexuality?

And if we take the simple secular roles of father and brother, I’m not entirely sure that the well-known impulse of fathers and brothers to protect their sisters is to prevent them having sex. After all, it’s not as if brothers and fathers prevent association with guys at all; usually they only wish to control for the quality of the gents. In nearly all the families that I know, fathers happily send daughters off to college where they can exercise their freedom, and only will interfere, to take one recent example from my personal experience, if said daughter asks about the suitability of a guy. I see no evidence of fearful control there. Perhaps there’s more exertion of control or rules in high school…and given the age range of high-schoolers, I’d say that some restriction is usually warranted.

There’s a great human impulse to find darkness as well as light, and sometimes we overextend ourselves to find subtle, malicious instincts where there really are none. I think that this is one of those cases. I can’t think of a single brother or father who really cares about his sister or daughter’s choice to have a relationship. But I do know that they care very deeply about whom that relationship is with, mainly because, much like Douthat states in his article, they care about the future and safety of the person they care about.

At this point, some might say that I am back to being just like Douthat, and focusing on sex-hungry men. I’m not so sure of that conclusion; I couldn’t care less about who dates my sisters, as long as they are decent people who make them happy and suit them well. In the end, it’s up to my sisters. I don’t control them, and they don’t control me. I can advise and suggest, and only at the utmost may intervene, but it’s up to them. They’ll be fine without my supposedly patriarchal, repressive concern, but I see no issue with them having recourse to it if they wish.

Devil’s advocate against my own points above: I do not intend to suggest more men shouldn’t do housework. Chores and work should be equitably distributed. However, the work should include the day jobs as well. If both the mother and father work full-time jobs, then it makes sense that the housework should be split evenly. Yet if the mom is stay-at-home, and the dad works, or vice versa, it does make sense the parent at home does the lion’s share of the housework during the day. It’s fairly simple labor distribution. Yet, as I can attest from personal experience, once the breadwinner arrives home, they shouldn’t be exempted from housework.

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