Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sex, Religion, and Politics: The Trinity of Submission

WE THOUGHT OUR RETURN from summer hiatus should be gentle and gradual, so we decided to focus this week's post on the most innocuous of subjects.

Actually, the topic was generated by Red Room, a San Francisco-based social networking site for writers, who sought provocative dialogue on those very topics polite conversation ignores--sex, politics, and religion. The topic and its very verbotenness both annoyed and intrigued.

A number of concepts connect sex, politics, and religion--strong belief systems, rules of transgression, long complicated histories of bad behavior, some unyieldingly bad poetry, and saddest of all, Mel Gibson movies. But, what makes these three arenas of human participation particularly powerful is the degree to which they are ultimately about submission.

We like to imagine all three as forms of proactivity, which, of course, they can be. But, really, for this triumvirate to accrue any power at all, they require us, on some level, to submit. Theirs is the world of the relinquish, the bequeath, the surrender. They ask not only that we dominate but that we be dominated. We rarely like to think in these terms about such important aspects of our lives. As Americans, we hate to think about being dominated by transcendent forces. We think it undermines our agency, our identity, our ability to control destiny.

Think, for, example of the supplicant. The beggar and the believer, the subject and the subjected. He who bows; she who is bowed to. That image fits in any of these three puzzles and perhaps explains the intense and interrelated intimacies of politics, sex, and religion. Supplicate is Latin for "kneeling down." Submission (sub-missio) is Latin for "letting down." In public, we are all about being upright, but in private, any number of things might make us drop to our knees.

This is one reason these topics are off limits. In public settings, it's uncomfortable to talk about private submissions. But, it's also the main reason they make for such good novels, compelling movies, and voyeuristic reality TV. In the lockbox of our hearts, we know we are shaped and shadowed by these concepts; in fact, almost nothing has more control over the moral contours of our lives.

And so the secret conservative, the closeted believer, the passive dominatrix all go about their lives engaged and active, prostrate and submissive, perhaps overcompensating in one area of their lives as a means of seeking equilibrium: the calm surface of life's mirrored pond.

Thing is, we know we all dive in to drown.

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