Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In Online Blog Conversations (Especially About Religion), Where Are the Women Commenters?

At her Flunking Sainthood site, Mormon blogger Jana Riess asks an interesting question yesterday: Where are all the Mormon women blog commenters? Riess notes that, though 46% of her readers are women and 54% men, 90% of the comments to her blog come from men.

As she points out, this gender-disparity issue is not just a Mormon-specific one: men dominate online conversations across the entire internet. The New York Times finds that, though 44% of its readers are women, only 25% of its comments online come from women. 

Riess notes, however, that she's especially troubled by the gender disparity oin Mormon-specific online conversations, since the leadership structures of the church are already male-dominated and LDS women lack any official space in which to make themselves heard about issues important to Mormons. She writes,

In the Mormon example I think the disparity in commenters' gender — not just here but on some other Mormon sites as well — is especially troubling. That’s because in the LDS Church, women lack an "official" space in which they can make their voices heard on important issues, and have their comments matter when decisions are considered and made. If the online world were Utopia, gender would be irrelevant and women could claim a "room of their own" in which other readers, including some who are in church leadership positions, would have to listen to them just to follow the overall conversation.

And then she concludes,

Ideally, online interactions would, as one study has suggested, stand "in contrast to patterns of male dominance traditionally observed in face-to-face communication." 
In the "real" virtual world in which we live, however, that's yet to happen. 

That conclusion resonates with me. However imperfectly I may have realized this goal with this blog, it has been in the forefront of my intention from the time I began blogging to open a conversation space that permits many different voices to interact in respectful conversation, and, in particular, to invite the contributions of those most often marginalized by the power structures of religious groups and society.

Part of the reason I value such a space is that, as a gay man with strong ties to a male-dominated heterosexist religious institution, I know what it's like to have my voice treated as meaningless. As a result, I've become particularly sensitive to the phenomenon of mansplainin', since, believe it or not, we gay men can experience being mansplained to, as well. Because heterosexual men can envisage us as women in male bodies, we can be treated as dithering, emotion-laden, irrational and light-minded creatures who need to have things 'splained carefully to us — since otherwise we'd miss the point.

The world of religion, the Catholic world of religion, is rife with mansplainers who imagine that they and they alone have the truth, see the point, understand the world dispassionately, and the rest of us need to curtsey and obey: and, above all, listen. Remember the white heterosexual man who frequently tuned into this blog in the past year, who locked horns with me over issues of crime and gun control and race (and, eventually, gender), and who told me I wasn't listening to him, and that if I'd only listen, he could explain to me what I didn't understand about these issues?

Yes — that's what I mean when I say that gay males can experience mansplaining, though it behooves us always to remember that, qua males, we also enjoy a powerful amount of male privilege in all the structures of our society and in almost all religious bodies, privilege that becomes all the zaftiger when we manage to pass ourselves off as heterosexual men.

(And I'd also note in passing that women can be old boys, too, as a United Methodist friend of mine who has long worked for gender equity in the UMC. Old boys come in both gender flavors, she's fond of saying. Women can be as fiercely certain that they and they alone understand the truth as men can be, and as aggressive as men can be about trying to beat others over the head with their truth, and to force them to swallow said truth without critical response or conversation. 

If there's any trait that I've learned to run away from as fast as my little gay feet can carry me, as a gay man in academic life, it's that bullying approach of people intent on coercing me, whether those people come to me in male skins or female skins. The minute the bullying starts, I tune out and retreat to the sanctuary of my own conscience, my own thoughts, my own soul, where bullying never brings light or peace, and where we learn to nurture the flickering candle of our spiritual lives, to savor the peace that comes from attending to that candle, precisely by turning our backs on the ravening appetite of anyone else to possess and control us.)

I find the graphic, which might be from a 1950s-era advertisement, used at a number of blog sites, with no indication of its original source. If any reader has that information, I'll be grateful for it.

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