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“Virgin” Forests and the Sexist Language of Land Use

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Sharon Friedman makes a very good point about the language of environmentalism, particularly the use of the term “virgin forests.”

Calling anything involving forests “virgin” muddles the concepts of “old-growth,” “native forests” and “past practices,” promotes the notion of nature as female and humans as male, and slanders all the non-virgins in the world. It’s so sloppy a usage that it conveys a trifecta of trickiness: three bad ideas surreptitiously conveyed in one word.

Perhaps even worse than talking about “virgin forests” is describing some human activities in forests as “rape.” The key difference between the sacred act of union and the crime of rape is mutual consent. At this point in human and forest development, we cannot ask the forests permission and hear them say, “No.” Using the term inappropriately demeans the word itself, which should remain powerful and specific about a brutal violation.”

The gendering of forests has multiple problems, as Friedman points out. Not only does it reinforce sexism in society, equating sexual intercourse and the destruction of resources, but it also creates real problems in land management. While the Wilderness Act of 1964 doesn’t use the term “virgin,” it does say this:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

This language avoids the sexist language of thinking about forests as women to despoil, but it assumes that changed land is like a sexually active woman–of less value and not worth preserving. In fact, the language of the Wilderness Act became an incentive for developers and agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to speed up development of certain areas, such as building random roads, just to exclude lands from wilderness consideration.

Like a sexually active woman, a forest changed by people is not ruined. Human activity should not change the status of land any more than sex should change how society treats women.

As Friedman points out, it would be nice if after forty or more years of an active environmental movement, we could use different language to describe the land. But then again, I’d argue that environmentalism has some major gender problems to overcome, as do scholars of the environment. I had a wonderful time at the American Society for Environmental History conference last weekend in Madison, but there wasn’t squat on the program about gender and nature. And that’s a big problem in its own right.

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  • Oh. Brother.

    • I agree.
      Friedman’s commentary
      1 ignores the use of the term “virgin forest” long before the environmental movement of he 1960s;
      2 makes liberals look stupid.

    • Anonymous

      maybe we can call them FILFs?

  • John

    Really?

    • Clearly language is irrelevant…..

      • The entire Democrat Party agrees.

      • Eddie Dean

        Clearly language is irrelevant…..

        Worst recession in memory, no JOBS and this is important?

        Really?

        • Yeah fair enough. I never talk about jobs or labor issues so your point is totally valid.

          • Eddie Dean

            Oh…I see.

            Because you post about jobs in other posts, that now makes this issue less stupid.

            • No, it just makes you a moron.

              • Eddie Dean

                Yeah, well I’m not the one making these kinds of posts, either…

                • There is a simple solution to this: get your own blog.

        • Lyanna

          There are starving children in Somalia, and your First World job is important?

          Yes, this is important. How people think about women is important. Get over it.

          • Can I get an “amen?”

          • jeh

            except somalia isn’t important, nor are your hackneyed ideas about how women are viewed by others….

            • Malaclypse

              Man, Romney’s loss must hurt bad, if you feel the need to troll a 7-month-dead post. Especially if you troll this badly. Buck up, little camper! Your side will be stealing elections again in no time!

              • jeh

                its cute that you think i like romney…

      • big bad wolf

        erik, you can do better than this silly all or nothing snark. i’m good with the virgin/rape part. i’m not with you on the wilderness act. c’mon, it’s a legislative enactment with a specific goal and the sexually active women comparison is sloppy and show-offy, a parlor trick—watch me extend this metaphor indefinitely, clever, huh?. to then snark that language is irrelevant is lazy and beneath you.

        • Please. The idea of wilderness as only legitimate if it is “unspoiled” is connected to larger ideas of gender and sexuality in the environmental movement and in society. There’s nothing clever about it. It’s a routine gendered analysis of environmentalism. Nothing more.

          • John

            Using an analogy is not a demonstration of causation.

          • joel hanes

            Sorry. I’m with BBW.

            The point is not that any forest that’s been changed by human use is of lesser value or somehow ritually impure — the point is that forests (and other lands) that have not yet been substantially changed by human use have a steadily increasing value that comes from being rare. When such places were common, they were not valued for their “undisturbed” state; quite the opposite.

            When there were billions of hundred-foot white pines, their value was commercial. Now there are few places where one can see a hundred foot white pine, and they’ve taken on a different kind of value.

          • joe from Lowell

            Please. The idea of wilderness as only legitimate if it is “unspoiled” is connected to larger ideas of gender and sexuality in the environmental movement and in society.

            Please. The idea of food as only legitimate if it is “unspoiled,” and drugs only legitimate if they are “unadulterated,” is connected to larger ideas of zzzzzzzzzz…..

            I saw a post like this before, on the Reason web site. Their clever parlour trick was to argue that concern about “non-native” or “invasive” species actually demonstrated the profound anti-immigrant bigotry of environmentalists, as if only a land untainted by intruders from bad countries was legitimate.

            I wasn’t impressed then, either, which is obviously a demonstration of both my underlying nativism and my defensiveness about it.

          • mpowell

            I have to agree with the other posters. If this is your idea of gender analysis, you’re doing it wrong. You may be correct that federal legislators were incorrect to focus only on areas that had not yet experienced much human influence, and ignoring areas that could easily be returned to a genuinely natural condiation while also creating easily exploited loopholes for developers was a mistake. But the language itself completely avoids terms and phrasing drawing comparisons to feminine sexuality. You have do a lot more work to demonstrate that this unduly limited concept of preservation is due particularly to sexist cultural tropes instead of simply narrow thinking about environmental preservation.

  • dan

    I’ve decided that every day in going to pick something that I clearly should be outraged by, and decide to be completely apathetic towards it. Today, gender roles in the language used in forestry policy will be it.

  • joe from Lowell

    Next in the series: who dares call them ladyslippers?

    • UberMitch

      Are you proposing a more descriptive name, like scrotumblossoms?

      • joe from Lowell

        blink, blink.

        Uh…I am now!

    • Stag Party Palin

      And what about Gaia theory? Guy theory?? Nope, won’t work unless it’s Gaia.

      Sex is the most thought-about, written about, theorized about, and acted upon of human drives. Trying to take the more ordinary gender terms out of traditional usage always results in ridicule and IMHO damages the cause. I mean, come on, how are you going to protect “virgin” forests by holding your breath and turning blue until we all hold hands together and say, [word chosen by committee after ten years of study] forests? Faugh. And I am an experienced rabble-rousing environmentalist, so what I say goes.

      • Lyanna

        In what universe is it “ordinary” to talk about virgin forests? It’s weird and anachronistic and slightly creepy.

        • Stag Party Palin

          Our universe. But my point is, will changing the term change the way anyone treats the forests? For instance, are you a despoiler of forests, and will you stop if I stop saying “virgin”?

          • It may change the way we treat women.

            We think with language. It is good to at least attempt to think about how language shapes thought. It is good to unpack assumptions that we may be unaware of.

            • DrDick

              An observation Edward Sapir made in the 1930s. How we talk about things influences how we think about them. The shift away from policeman, fireman, postman, etc. to more gender neutral terms made it less unthinkable that women should hold those positions. Changing the language alone will not accomplish much, but it is a necessary piece.

              • blowback

                So what are you suggesting we call them?

                • DrDick

                  Would you care to be a bit more specific with your referent?

            • Uncle Kvetch

              We think with language. It is good to at least attempt to think about how language shapes thought. It is good to unpack assumptions that we may be unaware of.

              Y’know, maybe my being an ABD in linguistic anthropology means I’ve been brainwashed…but Mal’s statement is so excruciatingly obvious to me that I’m amazed at the defensiveness underlying so many of the reactions to the post.

              OK, enough meta.

            • Stag Party Palin

              Wellll, I thought this was about forests, but whatever. Your point about the treatment of women depends on whether you think language shapes thought or reflects it. I can think of examples where suppression of talk and thought (wartime censorship in occupied countries) resulted in coded language and art to keep the forbidden thoughts alive. Obviously I fall on the side that thinks language is reflective, and therefore stopping talking about virgin forests will do nothing to change attitudes towards women. Or forests.

              • Hogan

                Your point about the treatment of women depends on whether you think language shapes thought or reflects it.

                Can’t it do both?

  • blowback

    Erik – please tell me that either you were late with your April Fool or this is a piece of satire.

    • Why?

      It’s very interesting to me that our extremely male commenters have a problem with this.

      • DrDick

        I have talked about this kind of thing in my anthropology of gender class before. Kind of interesting symbolism.

      • I find it interesting too. Ignore the “what about the menz?”ers.

      • joe from Lowell

        While we’re engaging in extremely close readings of language, how about detour into the use of “defensive” and “have a problem” as verbal card tricks intended to suggest that dismissing something as unimportant is actually a demonstration of insecurity?

        • Right; you are assuming I have enough respect for many of the people arguing against me to consider their opinions worthwhile.

          • joe from Lowell

            …he says in one of his numerous responses to the people arguing against him.

            • Responding to idiots is different than taking them seriously.

              • joe from Lowell

                Oh, I think your inability to come up with anything more compelling than adopting a huffy posture in response to the people disagreeing with you demonstrates quite clearly that you don’t take them seriously.

                But, then, you never do. There is Erik, there are people who agree with Erik, and there are people who are totally lame. As always.

                • Works for me.

                • joe from Lowell

                  …and if that’s all you aspire too, then good for you, buddy!

                • and there are people who are totally lame.

                  Somewhere in this thread, Manju points out terms that we would never use today, because we have unpacked the assumptions behind them. I’d argue that “lame,” used in this context, will one day join those terms.

                  Works for me.

                  Interesting pedagogical methodology.

      • JL

        Same here (I am female, by the way). I don’t get the reaction. If the issue in this post isn’t your thing, so what? There will be more posts soon, about different topics.

        • Ed

          There will be more posts soon, about different topics.

          And not a moment too soon.

      • mpowell

        I had a negative comment upthread, but I want to emphasize that I have no problem with the post as a whole: talking about virgin forests is indeed stupid. I just don’t think the specific example of the Wilderness Act proves anything.

  • Christopher

    Well, the point about how “Virgin Forest” doesn’t actually mean anything is well taken, but her discussion of rape seems really confused to me.

    What could it possibly matter whether we can hear a forest say “no”? Did, “Well, she didn’t say no!” become the feminist definition of consent while I wasn’t looking?

    The unspoken idea here seems to be that “rape” is too strong a word to use metaphorically. I have no real strong opinion about this one way or another; I just sort of wish she’d said that instead of a weird bit about how forests can’t talk.

    I don’t recall ever referring to environmental damage as “rape”, but I’m happy to refer to it as “castration”.

    PS – I’m also confused about why the human race wouldn’t survive if everybody prized virgins. In most societies you’re expected to stay a virgin until you marry, not for your entire life.

    • Rape metaphors are quite common in environmental discourse, particularly over issues of forests and mining.

      • Anonymous

        They’re not “rape metaphors”, they’re using a second definition of the same word, genius.

      • UserGoogol

        Technically, “to plunder” is the original definition of rape. The sense of “to engage in nonconsensual sex with someone” has become the dominant usage, but the older variant still shows up from time to time. I don’t really know if environmental writers are using the phrase as an archaic throwback or if they have willful sexual implications.

        • Jeffrey Beaumont

          The fact that the word rape means sexual assault, which is horrifying, lends it more power in the metaphorical use, which is good. Saying it shouldn’t be used metaphorically is a weak argument. I mean any murder-related verbs shouldn’t be used metaphorically either then, since murder is worse than rape. And obviously the Nazis have copyrighted the term holocaust.

          • John

            It’s not a metaphorical use to use “rape” to mean “plunder”. It’s the original, literal meaning of the word. I’m not sure that changes the basic question, but we should be precise about this kind of thing to know what we’re talking about.

            • mpowell

              This isn’t actually sufficient as a defense. If the common understanding of the term rape is now closely associated with nonconsensual sex you have to engage with that reality. Maybe it is still an appropriate usage or not. But if meaning of the word that exists in people’s heads today leads to bad environmentalism or more sexism in society, than you should discourage the practice.

              • John

                I didn’t say it was sufficient as a defense. I just think we should be precise about this. “Using the word ‘rape’ to refer to the plunder of the natural world is a metaphor based on the real meaning of rape, which is to force sex upon a woman,” is a different statement from “Using the secondary meaning of rape as ‘to plunder’ suggests to many people an analogy between this and the more common meaning of ‘rape’, to for sex upon a woman.”

      • Christopher

        Oh, I’m sure they are; I just personally don’t (that I recall).

        I just bring it up because, as I say, I’m neutral on the underlying issue, and I’m perfectly happy to never talk about corporate rape of our virgin forests, or whatever.

        In other words, I want to forestall any argument that I have an axe to grind, or I’m just reacting because somehow I’ve been attacked.

        I just think Friedman’s argument is very poorly made, both in general and from a specifically feminist point of view.

    • Lyanna

      Well, fine; change it to “a forest can’t say yes,” which is a more feminist definition of consent, and the point still stands.

      I don’t think the issue is that “rape” is too strong to be used metaphorically. The problem is with using it to describe something that happens to unfeeling, unthinking objects.

      • John

        Rape: an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.

      • chris

        The air can’t say yes, but that doesn’t make it unethical to breathe.

        Some people might argue that it’s unethical to eat animals that don’t consent to be eaten, but I bet they draw the line at eating plants that also don’t consent to be eaten.

        The right to bodily integrity has to be tied to *some* kind of capacity to experience suffering when that integrity is violated, or the whole concept becomes incoherent and bans everything.

        It’s clear that language like “rape” and “virgin” has been extended way beyond where it can possibly be meaningful, but once you make that point, I don’t think you’re left with anything to say about the underlying issue.

        “Virgin” forest isn’t valued more highly *because* of the analogy; it’s valued because of a concept of authenticity and non-artificiality that is still going to be there even if you succeed at a terminological crusade.

      • joe from Lowell

        The problem is with using it to describe something that happens to unfeeling, unthinking objects.

        The use of a term that is more commonly applied to human beings serves to elevate the “unfeeling, unthinking object” – the ecosystem – to the level of a being with moral standing, whose well-being we should respect. It would be the opposite – the use of a term that is properly applied to objects, such as “plowing,” to describe an act that harms a person – that would be problematic.

  • Anonymous

    So men can’t be virgins now?

    • McAllen

      Male virgins aren’t the ones who have myths about purity applied to them.

      • Jon H

        “Myths about purity” is probably the wrong terminology, but I think you’ll find most guys would tend to think ass virginity is pretty important, and definitely don’t want anyone messing with their child’s ass virginity.

        • McAllen

          It’s not really the same thing, I don’t think. Men aren’t worried about anal rape because they think it will make them less pure, they’re worried about it because they think it will make them a woman.

          • Tcaalaw

            No, I’m pretty sure that I worry about anal rape because I don’t want my anus violently ripped apart, combined with the substantial risk of being infected with an STD if the attacker is already infected.

            • joe from Lowell

              And women worry about being raped for similar reasons related to their safety and bodily integrity, but that’s not the subject here. We’re talking about the symbolic meanings of terms and images, and in particular, those commonly understood in our society.

              Above and beyond the actual, physical harm of rape, it has also been given certain symbolic meanings. That’s the subject here.

        • mpowell

          I agree with Tcaalaw. Concerns about anal virginity as such are just a manifestation of homophobia. But most straight men don’t want to experience even a single act of anal sex. That’s a different concern having nothing to do with the concept of virginity.

      • joel hanes

        The Catholic bishops publicly pretend to disagree.

    • LeeEsq

      Etymologically no, men can’t be virgins. Nest question.

      • John

        If we’re arguing from etymology, then it should be unproblematic to use “rape” to refer to the despoliation of natural environments.

        • LeeEsq

          I just wanted to annoy Anonymous.

  • Jon H

    You know, I think it’s probably possible to conceive of forms of rape of a woman (at a minimum, consensual sex between a nearly-legal girl and her boyfriend) that maybe don’t quite measure up to the degree of violation inherent in, say, mountain top removal mining.

    • Ben

      I agree with this, and think it plays some role in making rape environmental metaphors as popular as they are; “violent penetrative acts” adequately capture a fair amount of human interaction with the environment.

      If that analogy occurred in a vacuum, maybe it would be ok. But it doesn’t. It takes place in the context of the “virgin”, “spoiled goods” language that Erik and the excerpted piece talk about. And those associations are inevitably activated with the rape metaphor along with the violence.

      So, while everything you say is right, I think, it’s not enough to overcome the downsides which are pointed out in the post.

      • Jon H

        You do realize that “spoiled goods” is a concept grasped by most pre-sexual children, right?

        A broken toy, an ice cream cone in the dirt… the hymen isn’t the only thing that gets broken.

        • Ben

          Again, not when it takes place in the context of other explicitly gendered and feminine language.

          These interconnected tropes are pretty old, as is applying them to the environment. Claiming one or the other has rhetorical uses in other contexts that aren’t gendered won’t wash.

    • Lyanna

      That’s just silly. There’s no violation inherent in mountain top removal mining, because a mountain can’t be violated. Violation happens to people who have rights.

      You can say there’s a metaphorical violation, but not an inherent one.

      And talking about consensual sex that technically qualifies as statutory rape is willfully missing the point. Those cases aren’t the typical rape cases, either in law or in public imagination, and they’re not what’s being evoked with rape metaphors.

      • John

        Of course things can be violated, and are so described all the time.

      • joel hanes

        There’s no violation inherent in mountain top removal mining

        People care about places.

        When a beautiful place full of living things that people have cared about for hundreds of years is obliterated and made hideous and poisoned by some external force, it makes people who care about that place feel sad and angry and helpless.

        • chris

          But it doesn’t make *the place itself* feel anything, because it’s not capable of feeling things.

          Personally, I think using the word “rape” to describe consensual sex that a legislature disapproves of is pretty offensive, too, but that’s a whole different can of worms.

  • Jon H

    Next week: Feminists Against Rapeseed

    • Rob Masters

      Next week: Feminists Against Rapeseed

      Thanks! I laughed OUT LOUD!!

      Funny stuff. Wish I’d thought of it!

      • dsn

        What about canola? Is that OK?

    • Oh gosh, we’re so unfun huh?

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Never mind the naysayers — this is good food for thought and well worth sharing.

    • DrDick

      Agreed.

    • Tirxu

      Not a fan of +1ing, but I’ll make an exception in this case: thanks for this post, Erik.

    • Manju

      i’m with kvetch and his sidekick dick (really).

      “good food for thought” is just about right. This post might be academic, but I don’t see it as worthy of mockery.

      “gypped”, “white knight”, “Mrs/Miss” “colored”, etc.

      These terms reflect particular racial, ethnic, or gender hierarchies. Folks didn’t see it then, but I doubt many here don’t see it now.

      So why not identify that which we don’t currently see?

      • Uncle Kvetch

        These terms reflect particular racial, ethnic, or gender hierarchies. Folks didn’t see it then, but I doubt many here don’t see it now. So why not identify that which we don’t currently see?

        Very well put, Manju.

        And if you don’t think there’s something to it, just look at the outpouring of pissy snark Erik’s post has generated: “Oh great, one more thing I’m supposed to be OUTRAGED about…”

        You’ve really hit a nerve here, Erik. Well done.

        • Popeye

          100% agreed. It’s fascinating how aggrieved some people got. I had no idea that people were so attached to the expressions “virgin forest” and “raping nature.” DON’T TREAD ON ME, LOOMIS!

      • Malaclypse

        These terms reflect particular racial, ethnic, or gender hierarchies. Folks didn’t see it then, but I doubt many here don’t see it now.

        I don’t know what brought about the apparent epiphany, but damn, when Manju is right, he’s right.

        • DrDick

          Indeed.

    • Agreed.

  • Jon H

    “Like a sexually active woman, a forest changed by people is not ruined.”

    Oh lord. Nevermind the unknown species that might have been wiped out, there’s sensitive people’s sensitivities to be protected! Pearls must not be clutched!

    I look forward to the future of sterile, politically correct language in the environmental movement, with all the poetry of the term “dental dam”.

    • McAllen

      I think you’re missing the point. That passage isn’t just about language, it’s about how the fact that an area has been changed by humans is used as an excuse to treat it as having no value anymore.

      • Yes.

        • Jon H

          You realize, don’t you, that this argument is more likely to end up removing the idea that virgin forests should be protected, rather than improving the protection of non-virgin forests?

          • Jeffrey Beaumont

            Right.

          • Anonymous

            Women’s rights are spoiling the world, and advancing those rights is counterproductive to real issues. Got it.

            • John

              Convincing people not to use one of the meanings of the word “rape” is the most important thing we can do to advance women’s rights.

              • Uncle Kvetch

                Convincing people not to use one of the meanings of the word “rape” is the most important thing we can do to advance women’s rights.

                I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many strawmen deployed in a single thread.

                • John

                  As opposed to the comment by Anonymous I was responding to? Jon H said that Erik’s critique of the Wilderness Act is most likely to lead to more destruction of old growth forests than to more protection of non-old growth forests, and Anonymous responded by claiming that he hates women’s rights. And yet I’m the one deploying straw men.

      • Marc

        It’s simply a fact that an ecosystem changes, for a very long time, when all of the trees are chopped down. It’s entirely proper to distinguish areas with different levels of biodiversity, and “the trees weren’t all removed in the last decade” is a pretty good proxy for that.

    • Lyanna

      Oh please. Yes, by all means, whine about trees without regard to what your language implies about actual people. That’s the way to make environmentalism relevant again!

      So is invoking the dread PC, by the way. You really think you’re going to promote environmentalism by bashing PC? There’s nothing more PC than tree-hugging. And if the environmental movement can’t be poetic without being sexist, it’s obviously too unimaginative to do anything useful.

      • jeh

        what, praytell, are YOU doing to advance the environmental movement? you sound more like someone who lives in the city, far away from any kind of ecosystem whatsoever…..

        ill come right out and say that a healthy environment that we can all live in healthily and comfortably is more important than the rights of any one set of human beings on this planet.

  • markg

    I haven’t heard the word “virgin” applied to forest or wilderness for years and, sure enough, when I clicked on the link I discovered that the only example cited was from a 1994 publication. Another day, another straw man beaten down on the internet.

    • Yes, clearly linking all the way to one website proves the straw man. If it’s not on one website, it can’t possibly be true!

      • markg

        What proves the straw man is the author’s failure to come up with more than one dated example. If the author objects to what she sees as sexism in the environmental movement, then let her prove it. She has not made a “very good point about the language of environmentalism” unless she has shown that environmentalists actually use the language in question. And she has not and neither have you.

        • It’s a fucking op-ed. Not to mention the readership of High Country News is deeply versed in these issues.

    • DrDick

      Come out here to Montana and I will introduce you to a whole bunch of folks who talk about that.

    • djw

      Your experience is, curiously, not entirely universal in this regard. I’ve heard the phrase plenty, but to check and see if my experience is somehow unique I conducted a google news search for the phrase “virgin forest” (something you apparently couldn’t be bothered to do before producing this pointless bit of snark). If you decide to do the same, I expect you’ll find examples of the term being used (without any consideration of the unfortunate metaphor) from a collection of environmental publications, timber industry publications, and newspapers based in locations ranging from Malaysia and Lewiston, Maine–all published in the last month.

  • I’m not male, but I’m unconvinced too.

    Actually, I think the point about “virgin forests” is fine, and the one about rape less so. Rape just means seizing by force (Rape of the Lock and all that), and is an appropriate, vivid word for what is being talked about. Just because rape metaphors are too common and can be used in really offensive ways doesn’t mean the word can’t ever be used except to mean sexual assault.

    What I find more interesting — and am undecided about — is the idea that it’s sexist or otherwise problematic to feminize forests or the earth. I think it’s interesting that many do (and that the language makes female countries and ships and so on), and I think it says something both about our ideas about femaleness and nature that might be worth considering, but that doesn’t mean it’s sexist or necessary to avoid.

    • McAllen

      I really think that rape just means “seizing by force anymore. You cite Rape of the Lock, but I think the language has changed in the 300 years since that’s been published.

      The problem with feminizing forests is that it comes from and plays into a lot of essentialist myths about women–that they’re closer to nature, that they’re more pure–that are directly or indirectly sexist.

      • McAllen

        DON’T think, that should be, in the first line above

      • poco

        Its like nobody here ever read Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”

        The weird cluelessness of most responses to Eric’s post is disheartening, to say the least.

        • I did figure it would cause some irritated responses, but yes, the overall cluelessness is not great.

        • DrDick

          I read it many years ago, as well as the many refutations of this as a cultural universal. That said, everybody agrees that it works for Western Societies and some others.

        • chris

          Its like nobody here ever read Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”

          Never read it, never heard of it, never heard of its author.

          What kind of background do you come from that you expect people to have read it as a matter of course? I mean, whoever Ortner is, I’m betting he/she doesn’t exactly have the public profile of Marx or Darwin or Adam Smith — and there are plenty of people on the Internet who haven’t read any of them either, and have only vague and often distorted ideas of what they said.

          If Erik’s argument is going to rely on it that heavily, perhaps linking it would have been a good idea. At a minimum. On the Internet, you can probably bet that 99% of your audience is outside your academic specialization, whatever it is. If you have a *really common* occupation, that figure may go as low as 95%, but probably no lower.

          • DrDick

            Sherry Ortner is a rather prominent anthropologist and a major figure in gender studies. I do not necessarily expect anyone outside those fields to know her, but it is not an unreasonable to make that assumption in a discussion of this sort.

            • John

              It is totally unreasonable to make such an assumption.

              • DrDick

                Agreed. It is always unreasonable to assume people might know what they are talking about.

                • John

                  It’s always unreasonable to act astonished that people you’re arguing with haven’t read an academic journal article, unless your argument is being conducted within the confines of that particular academic discipline. And poco’s original comment was a pissy way to show that he’s superior to everyone who disagrees with him, not actually a contribution to a discussion.

                  Beyond that, I’ll just say that I haven’t really seen anyone actually objecting to the idea that gendered language is used to refer to natural places. People have objected to 1) the idea that this has practical effects that it’s important to worry about; and 2) the specifics of the particular examples used by Friedman and Loomis. Reading Ortner’s article certainly isn’t going to address the second point, at least, and if it makes relevant arguments on the first point, well, Erik should have been able to make them in his post, too, instead of coming up with ridiculously specious readings of the Wilderness Act.

            • She was also fairly well known in anthro of religion, or at least she was back in the 90s when I was semi-well-versed in the field. But I thought that “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” made it into pretty much any well-designed ANT101 course.

              • DrDick

                It is rather outdated these days, but Ortner does get cited rather a lot even in intro classes.

                • Keep in mind that I took ANT101 in 1985…

                • Tyto

                  I read it for Anth.101 in ’91. It was couple of years later that we read some of the refutations. But as DrDick said, we concluded that it still largely applied to much of western culture.

                • Tyto

                  DrDick: this reminds me of some of the eye-rolling in seminars about some parts of “Engendering Archaeology.” Do you still find it current enough to teach from?

                • DrDick

                  I use the introduction and some other parts are OK, but mostly only because archaeology has been so slow to change.

      • I disagree. I do think that rape is used in that sense, as well as the sexual assault sense. In fact, if there’s a movement in language, it is to call rape in the sense you mean “sexual assault.” It was changed in the laws of most states, for example.

        With respect to the ideas about feminizing forests, obviously I know there are connections made between women and nature and that this says something about societal ideas about women and men. I’m just not convinced that the answer is to get bothered by the use of feminine language and pronouns for nature (or like I said, for countries or ships, etc.). I think it provides an interesting topic to discuss — what do we mean by it? What are the implications? But the idea that it’s clearly beyond the bounds and must be condemned seems wrong.

        Note: I don’t think that’s what’s being done with the word “rape.” They are two separate issues.

  • Dave

    I remember reading about the very important issue of metaphorical language like “virgin forests” and the like as it pertains to imperialism back when I was a first-year undergraduate. It was in an expository writing textbook. I would say it was interesting at the time for about thirty seconds and then I moved on, thinking that the more important issue was, you know, the imperialism.

    Eventually most academic writing started to sound like a version of this–if only people would use the right words, academic utopia would soon follow, and why don’t you agree, is it because you’re secretly objectively anti-forest and pro-raping??

    Anyway, whatever, who the fuck cares.

    • poco

      The more important issue is imperialism, and the language that makes it accepted and unremarkable, which is exactly what that academic discourse tried to teach you but clearly failed.

      • Dave

        “show me on this map where language made imperialism accepted and unremarkable”

        • poco
        • Fats Durston

          “show me on this map where language made imperialism accepted and unremarkable”

          Not sure why the quotation marks, but every modern metropolitan state made their empires “accepted and unremarkable” through words. The vast majority of metropolitans never witnessed their empire, but learned about it through words and pictures (with languages of their own). The language regarding “wogs” or “primitives” or indeed “virgin landscape” (“untouched” or “unimproved” by the “natives”) helped funnel tax dollars/pounds/marks/gurushes/daming tongxing baochao (etc.) into imperial projects.

          Literally the map itself–as a form of communication–demonstrates empire as “accepted and unremarkable.” See “Russia” or “United States” or “Mexico” or pretty much any country larger than a county. Are these things not utterly real, accepted and unremarkable? Are they not the result of the language of empire?

          • I think that was supposed to be a play on the “show me on the doll where he touched you” trope. But perhaps my snarkometer is a couple of orders of magnitude too sensitive.

          • chris

            Not sure why the quotation marks, but every modern metropolitan state made their empires “accepted and unremarkable” through words.

            I’d say “citation needed”, but it’s really something more like “evidence needed” — clearly the citations exist, but they’re to speculation.

            States make their empires accepted by imprisoning, torturing, and/or killing people that don’t accept them. The words are, at most, how they keep score.

            If you want to see the relative power of words and deeds in action, look at an empire that isn’t accepted beyond question — say, Israel. Maps can show the present claimed borders of Israel, but they can’t make them accepted — that’s what the military occupation, blockades, and firebombings of Palestinian neighborhoods are for. Even that hasn’t succeeded yet, but the Israelis clearly hope it eventually will, along the pattern of other imperialist/colonialist powers throughout history.

            But pay no attention to the actual violence, clearly it’s the terminology doing the heavy lifting. Sheesh. I think someone’s been reading a bit too much Sapir-Whorf.

            • John

              I think the point is that language is used to make imperialism acceptable in the metropole, not in the colony.

              I’m not sure I agree with that either, but I don’t think your comments are really apropos. The really problem here is that it doesn’t really get at causation – yes, language is used to justify imperialism. But it seems to me that it’s much more common for such language to reflect an already existing acceptance of imperialism than it is for it to create such an acceptance.

              • chris

                I think the point is that language is used to make imperialism acceptable in the metropole, not in the colony.

                Because treating a different group of people like shit is a position that requires so much defending? Even in modern liberal democracies, most people’s commitment to the universality of human rights is skin deep, and a substantial minority is actively opposed to extending rights to the wrong people.

                Neither the U.S. nor any other advanced liberal democracy actually got off their asses to do anything about apartheid, either, if you recall. Even booing ineffectually from a distance was politically controversial.

            • DrDick

              You really need to get out more. Yes empires deploy violence to maintain themselves, but they also use words and ideas to do so (go read some Gramsci for instance). There is a very large and well documented literature on this topic in a number of fields.

              • (go read some Gramsci for instance)

                Or the equally interesting but less well known Voloshinov.

                • Uncle Kvetch

                  Or the equally interesting but less well known Voloshinov.

                  Heartily seconded.

              • Dave

                See, this is the problem. I could read Gramsci all day and it wouldn’t matter in the slightest.

                Really, no problem exists that an academic thinks can’t be solved by reading another book.

            • Fats Durston

              States make their empires accepted by imprisoning, torturing, and/or killing people that don’t accept them. The words are, at most, how they keep score.

              I certainly don’t disagree on this count, except for the bolded bit. But read my whole post–I’m speaking less of the periphery than the metropole. To use your example, how many Americans are convinced–by words–about the righteousness of Israel’s empire? How many billions of American tax dollars have bought the bombs and planes and bullets behind the occupation.

              (And never read Sapir-Whorf directly, but some Samuel R. Delaney…)

              • Ben

                “Settlements”

                “Terrorists”

                “Democracy”

                “Right to defend itself”

                I’m sure if it was common and accepted practice to refer to “Illegal seizures of land”, “freedom fighters”, “apartheid” and “gross violation of international law and humanitarian decency” those billions of dollars from the US wouldn’t be affected in the least.

                • Or, for that matter, “torture” compared to “enhanced interrogation.”

                • Ben

                  Ignorance is truly strength

    • Uncle Kvetch

      Eventually most academic writing started to sound like a version of this–if only people would use the right words, academic utopia would soon follow, and why don’t you agree, is it because you’re secretly objectively anti-forest and pro-raping??

      It’s a good thing you stuck with it long enough to realize that it is, ultimately, all about you.

  • DrDick

    There is also the fact that the forests/habitats imagined in the law and by many Americans does not exist and has not existed for perhaps 10,000+ years. Humans, including hunter-gatherers, have been actively manipulating their environments for millennia (there is an extensive literature on this in anthropology). In North America, Indians burned (the open forests described by the early colonists were created by this), transplanted (all of the wild rice in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin was transplanted by the Ojibwa), diverting streams, selectively thinning competing species, etc.

    • Yes indeed.

      • DrDick

        One of my favorite phrases from American colonial history is “the widowing of the ‘virgin’ land.”

    • joel hanes

      Few people ever lived in the upper canyon of the Mokelumne, or among the peaks of the Ansel Adams or Hoover or Golden Trout wildernesses. Too much barren rock; the pine nuts and game and wild fruits all grow lower down; twenty feet of snow in winter, which doesn’t melt until June. With the exception of the Native hunting camps that have become modern campsites, these places still appear much as they would had humans never arrived on this continent. Not the same; they’ve been sporadically grazed, and the removal of top predators produces changes that cascade down an ecosystem — but these places are mostly too high and the biome too unproductive to support deer or cattle — so much the same.

      I get it that “virgin” and “rape” and “despoiled” are gendered metaphors that perpetuate patriarchical culture and thus oppress women.

      I get it that I am a sexist; a decade of lurking (mostly) in soc.feminism.moderated and five years of lurking (mostly) at Echidne’s has taught me that I am and always will be a sexist, and that the best I can hope is to be aware of my sexism and to struggle against it as best I can.

      I get it that many people do not find any special value in “wilderness” — but I do, and I don’t think my keen delight in walking in the old-growth stand of hundred-foot eastern white pines on Big Toe Island in lake Saganaga is in any way rooted in a sexist metaphor about the ritual purity of virgin girls.

      • DrDick

        With the exception of the Native hunting camps

        And with this simple phrase, you completely destroy your own argument. Please read what I said about Native Americans and the environment (and I am an expert on this topic). By their very presence and hunting, they altered the landscape, and they almost certainly did far more, though I do not have detailed knowledge of the Indians of that area. You also mention numerous other ways that humans have altered those environments, perhaps in profound ways. Humans are not outside the environment, but always an active part of it.

        • Not that Dr. Dick needs my help here, but as an environmental historian of the United States, he is 100% right about Native Americans and their impact upon the landscape. I recommend Shepherd Krech’s The Ecological Indian for more on this.

          • DrDick

            For the record, I am a specialist in Native North America and originally trained as an ecological anthropologist, before seeing the light and becoming a marxist political economist.

            • Do you get to teach actual courses in Political Economy? At a school in Montana?

              • DrDick

                I do not political economy per se, though I do teach a couple of theory classes where we talk about it. I am also quite explicit in many of my upper division classes (including my gender class and race and ethnicity class) that this is the perspective I am coming from. The only thing preventing me from doing so, however, is that we do not have a large enough faculty for me to teach classes that specialized.

                • Of all the courses I miss teaching, I miss teaching Classical Social Theory most of all…

                • DrDick

                  I would add, as a side note, that I seem to have converted a significant number of the students in my gender class to Marxist Feminism without actually trying to do so. I do not push my theoretical perspectives on the students, but am up front about where I am coming from and how that influences the ways I approach the topics. they seem to be convinced by the weight of the evidence from the readings in class (and there are a lot of them).

                • Tyto

                  You remind me of my cultural geography professor: “I am a post-modern, post-structural, marxist feminist, so keep that in mind in filtering my lectures.”

        • joel hanes

          And with this simple phrase, you completely destroy your own argument.

          Hmm. And here I thought I had made some effort to explicitly acknowledge the kinds of effects that Native culture had on landscapes, and that the landscape was neither “virgin” nor unchanged — just relatively unaffected compared to the more continually-settled areas at lower elevations.

          I’ll have to learn to either write more clearly, or to think more clearly; probably both.

  • LeeEsq

    I’m with Erick on this one. Lots of misery has been inflicted by attributing mystic status to virginity, especially female virginity. There isn’t anything special in a good or bad way about being a virgin, its just somebody who never had sex. Otherwise, there aren’t really any traits involved.

    The problem with the term virgin forests is that is at root, pun intended, a very anti-human term. It implies that things are better before humans touch them and transform them just as linking virginity and virtue implies that women are better before sex. It is an evil way of seeing things.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    This is a pretty lame topic. I grant the virgin forest thing. Old growth is a much better term. If rape is defined as a “brutal violation”, then the term is not weakened by applying it to some environmental catastrophes.

    This attempt to gender the wilderness act, which as is pointed out, uses neutral language, is ridiculous. The Wilderness Act is great legislation, its results fantastic. And most of the wildernesses I have visited do indeed show evidence of human activity, yet still retain their “primeval” quality.

    Also, not all gendered language is demeaning to women or whichever gender is being used in analogy. Female-gendered ships leads to what, exactly?

    • I always understood the naming of ships as female was due them being personified as fickle creatures who in the age of sails would love you one moment, turn on you and destroy you the next, which is how women were viewed also (“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, etc.).

      (Though perhaps I’m confusing this with the weather)

      • Jeffrey Beaumont

        Yes, ships may be dangerous potentially, but they are also objects of love and devotion. So perhaps if the female naming of ships (obviously not the male naming of ships because sailing is a historically male-dominated activity) as a metaphor for romantic relationships apt.

  • JozefAL

    Perhaps it’s time for the idea of “male virginity” to resurface. Oh, wait. Isn’t the very idea of the typical “horny teenagers” movie genre (featuring films like the raunchy “Porky’s” and “American Pie” as well as the more serious “Summer of 42”) about teenage BOYS losing their virginity? (Okay–maybe that’s the not the be-all and end-all of the films, but it certainly plays a key role in all the examples.) If boys are trying to lose their virginity, obviously they believe they have something to lose. How then does that lead to the “notion of nature as female and humans as male?” As *I* recall from my reading, humans recognized nature as being BOTH female and male. Most of the fertility rituals required the sacrifice of both elements (in fact, one of the key elements in the classic film, “The Wicker Man”–not the Nicholas Cage botchery–depends on a MALE virgin as part of the sacrifice). Yes, yes, there’s all that talk of “Mother Nature” but bear in mind that most unexpected events are described–at least in the US–as “acts of God” and most Christians tend to view God as “male.”

    And wasn’t the title character in “The 40-Year Old Virgin” a man?

    I think the introduction of the use of “rape” is really a stupid point. Rape is NOT just about consent (talk to a 19-year old black man who’s been arrested for the statutory rape of his 17-year old white girlfriend or a 23-year old gay male or trans prisoner whose complaints about being sexually assaulted by other inmates are ignored by prison officials since the officials seem to think that gay men or transpeople really enjoy all the “free sex” they’re getting; the first instance is a case of consensual sex being punished in part because the girl is “underage” but also because of race while the second instance is a case of ignorance about gays and trans people and sex–the same ignorance applies to domestic violence involving same-sex couples or couples where one partner is trans). Trying to suggest that we stop using the word “rape” because “we can’t get consent from a forest” is the same type of STUPIDITY that leads right-wing idiots who think that allowing gays and lesbians to enjoy sex with the person or people of their choice leads us down that slippery slope of recognizing a man’s right to f**k his dog or his sheep. (I would certainly hope that Ms Friedman doesn’t think that a gay man or a lesbian should not enjoy consensual sex with the partner/s of their choice simply because it’s illegal to engage in sex with animals because that is EXACTLY the type of analogy she’s leading to with the “consent” issue.)

    Of course, maybe we should also see to it that ALL uses of “virgin” be changed. No more “Virgin Mobile.” No more “Virgin Airlines.” No more “Virginia” or “West Virginia.” No more “Virgin Islands.” NONE of these have any ties to the sexual use of “virgin” (at least, no more so than “virgin forest”). Then, also, you’d need to go after the Catholic Church for its insistence on a “Virgin Mary” (which would then lead to no more describing non-alcoholic drinks being “Virgin” versions).

    • rea

      No more “Virginia” or “West Virginia.” No more “Virgin Islands.” NONE of these have any ties to the sexual use of “virgin”

      Actually, both Virginia and the Virgin Islands were named after women who didn’t have sex (Elizabeth I and the 11,000 virgins martyred with St. Ursula).

      • Joe

        It is far from clear that Queen Elizabeth actually was a virgin.

        • Joe

          That is, all her life.

        • rea

          Well, yeah, but her propaganda portrayed her as “the Virgin Queen.”

          • Joe

            Okay, but that ‘propaganda’ wasn’t what you said.

            • Delurking

              And your point above made it clear you had no idea where the Virgin Islands got their names. Do you even listen to the arguments you’re making?

              Think about what it means when a drink is called (for instance) a Virgin Bloody Mary. Why do you *think* it’s called that?

              More pure? Less powerful?

              What does this say about actual women in that state, which is so viciously important in (some) segments of our culture?

              Words aren’t just words, however nice it might be for you that you can believe they are.

    • Lyanna

      Yeah! And maybe if them colored folks don’t like being called the n-word, we should all stop using “niggardly!” Harharhar, they’re so oversensitive!

      What’s with this thread bringing out all the truly pathetic right-wing memes about the dread political correctness?

  • rea

    I’m not sure what to think of virgin olive oil.

    • rea

      To say nothing of extra virgin olive oil.

      • DocAmazing

        Very hard to get out of a virgin wool sweater.

        • Eddie Dean

          Very fun stuff!

          Shows how stupid all of this is.

          Virgin wool: Wool from a sheep that outran Bubba.

          • DrDick

            You that slow?

    • John

      WHY DO YOU HATE WOMEN???

  • Heterosensible

    But then again, I’d argue that environmentalism has some major gender problems to overcome, as do scholars of the environment.

    Is this actually the case? My impression (I’m not an expert by any means) is that it’s actually better in this regard than most other “isms” out there. Ecofeminism is a thing, y’know. And (speaking of “isms” with gender problems) the “eco” doesn’t stand for economics.

  • Joe

    “promotes the notion of nature as female”

    If this is a problem, many women promote it. They don’t find “Mother Earth” a problem.

    “a forest changed by people is not ruined”

    The use of “rape” in this context is not “any human contact” but basically wanton misuse and mistreatment. The meaning = as noted = also can mean “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.” The root of the word has that connotation and in that sense it can very well be applied to nature.

    The idea that this “slanders” “all non-virgins” also is a bit much. One reason to suspect this is that, well, the term is usually used by non-virgins. Are they slandering themselves?

    The use of language is food for thought but this over-literal concern is gluttony.

    • Lyanna

      The fact that women or non-virgins use a term doesn’t automatically mean that it’s not insulting to women or non-virgins. Black people can have anti-black racist views; women can be misogynists.

      • Joe

        “Black people can have anti-black racist views; women can be misogynists.”

        Few do. And, I said “one reason.” The generalizations made given who uses the terms is a major reason to suggest its overblown.

        • Lyanna

          Few do.

          Support for this?

          I don’t think “few” women or minorities use sexist or racist language. I think it’s very common.

        • DrDick

          It is in fact quite common for marginalized groups to internalize the dominant stereotypes and ideologies in various ways. I can think of several counter examples for both cases, like Herman Cain & Clarence Thomas or Phyllis Schaffly and Kate O’Beirne.

  • Rob Masters

    C’mon, this is really Marcotte, isn’t it!

    Sockpuppetry at it’s finest!

    Now all you need to do is make shit up (Duke Lacrosse) about how evil all men are and the hoax is complete!

    • If you think comparing me to Marcotte is an insult, you need to work on your insulting skills because you are actually complimenting me.

    • Oh for fucks sake.

      MARCOTTE MARCOTTE MARCOTTE!!!

      I smell an mra’er! They always bring up the Duke case. AL-WAYS.

      • mark f

        Well, there’s the misogynists, for sure. “This woman lied” becomes “all women are liars,” or at least “some women are liars, so how can you prosecute rape when so many women are just lying for some reason that’s probably feminism,” but they’re not the only ones obsessed with the Duke story.

        Team Wingnut in general is pretty obsessed with the Duke case. Many of them are just tossing out a talking point for the scoreboard and aren’t overtly aware that they’re advancing misogynistic and racist tropes. Which actually makes Rob Masters a pretty good example of the problem Erik was illustrating.

        • Do you think it is possible for someone to be unaware that “make shit up… about how evil all men are” is a misogynistic statement?

          • mark f

            Sure. Many people have been exposed consciously to no feminism but strawfeminism.

  • Wow. I’m actually rather disappointed in a lot of the comments here. The words we choose to describe something severely affect people’s perception of the issue (and vice versa), just look at pro-choice, pro-life, anti-choice, snowflake babies — just to take one area. Not understanding this is what’s allowed conservatives to turn ‘liberal’ into an epithet.

    Despite the origin of ‘rape’ being in reference to despoiling land, in the modern mind, it’s very much associated with forced sex. The problem here is that a person who is raped will suffer physical and mental trauma, but they are not ‘despoiled’ or ruined.

    This is the mentality that needs to be changed.

    • Lyanna

      Yeah, the Dumb has really come out in full force on this thread.

      I approve, Mr. Loomis. Smoke the dumbasses out.

      • Ayup.

      • joe from Lowell

        Smoke the dumbasses out.

        And to think I saw this as a parlor trick aiming at nothing more than internet oneupsmanship.

    • UserGoogol

      I definitely support the idea that we should try to phrase things properly so as to not promote bad ideas, but at least to my ears “virgin forests” is an extremely dead metaphor. It’s a technical phrase which in no way makes me think of people who have not had sexual intercourse. (The criticism that “virgin forests” is kind of a misnomer anyway is one which sounds more on point, though.)

      If on some level other people do associate the phrase with gender and it promotes bad attitudes towards women (which I’d be willing to be persuaded of) then I’d be willing to agree with the article, but without linguistic evidence to persuade me of that it, it just sounds like making noise about nothing. The question of whether or not a word has certain connotations is a matter of linguistic fact, and shouldn’t be swayed by ideology in either direction.

      The word rape seems more genuinely problematic, though. It does have a nonsexual context, but the word “rape” still stirs up some rather unpleasant images. When I think of “virgins,” on the other hand, I just think of nerds.

      • I’m glad that we can both definitely agree that it’s an incorrect label, which I think is nigh impossible to argue against.

        I see what you mean when you say it’s a dead metaphor, but I don’t think that’s true for everyone. Perhaps you think of nerds, but there’s a huge swath of America out there with a virginity obsession — purity balls, for example — that would most certainly associate the word with purity and goodness.

        I doubt that you’re going to find any explicit evidence of women being oppressed by the concept of “virgin forests” solely, but in combination with other concepts (nature as feminine, how we need to protect the fragile ecosystem because it can’t protect itself) it reinforces the idea that women (or nature or forests) can’t take care of themselves and thus need some manly men to do it for them. And if they should get defiled, well, they lose all value.

        • DrDick

          Living in western Montana, with millions of acres of official wilderness, I hear a lot of this kind of rhetoric. While I do not think most of these people consciously make the connections between nature and women, it definitely impacts on how they conceptualize both. Many also explicitly see nature as female and women as somehow more “natural”.

        • chris

          I doubt that you’re going to find any explicit evidence of women being oppressed by the concept of “virgin forests” solely, but in combination with other concepts (nature as feminine, how we need to protect the fragile ecosystem because it can’t protect itself) it reinforces the idea that women (or nature or forests) can’t take care of themselves and thus need some manly men to do it for them.

          I don’t see how it can reinforce that idea while also leaning on it so heavily. The analogy doesn’t make a lick of sense unless you *already* strongly hold the idea that women are passive objects to be acted upon, and lose value if someone does act upon them (in a certain way). So how can it possibly do anything more than preach to the choir on that score?

          I guess what I’m trying to say is that the OP inverts the arrow of causation between views of women as passive objects and analogizing women to passive objects. The former has to come first, or there’s no similarity to base the analogy on.

  • FlipYrWhig

    Unfortunately for your analysis, the second example is not at all gendered. It does not liken the wilderness to a woman or suggest that the kind of “spoiling” in question is sexual. If anything, the language is all about Nature-with-a-capital-N as something outside of history. That’s not sexism, that’s Romanticism. You need something more like Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” where the poem’s speaker attacks the peaceful space with “merciless ravage.”

    IMHO the rhetoric the act uses is reversing the idea that technological progress is “improvement,” and establishing that the primal has worth rather than being mere fodder for economic development. It’s confronting the John Locke idea that the way to own things is to mix your labor with them and improve them, which, he says, indigenous peoples don’t, which is why their land isn’t really theirs.

    The gendering of nature has implications — see Carolyn Merchant among others — but your close-reading of the passage isn’t anchored in the text. Not at all.

    • joe from Lowell

      The depiction of the Wilderness Act as gendered isn’t meant to be based on the text.

      The first part of Erik’s post is supposed to demonstrate that any conceptualization of “unaltered” areas or ecosystems as having greater value than altered ones is inherently gendered, whether gendered language is used or not.

      If you take that claim as a given, then it follows that the Wilderness Act, which sure does described “unaltered” ecosystems as superior, is furthering a gendered idea.

      • FlipYrWhig

        OK, but that makes every example of a desire to protect something from damage a story about gender — for instance, looted Iraqi antiquities, repatriating the Elgin Marbles, or the return of the remains of Native Americans, all of which rely upon the idea that things, out of respect, ought to stay in the spaces where they were created. I really don’t think finding the totality of that kind of thinking to be metaphorically sexist gets anywhere politically or, honestly, has any meaning whatsoever. “Rape” and “virgin” and “mother” are one thing. Treating all desires to keep valuable things un-damaged as riffs on gender and sexual politics is a huge leap. If anything, it seems more the case that it’s the reverse, that the reason why anthropologically rapes and unlicensed sex are anathematized is because they are themselves instances of the “you took my stuff and ruined it” complaint.

  • “Virgin Forest” is hardly ever used in Australia: “Old Growth Forest” is the preferred phrase down here. I think it’s certainly more accurate, and it’s never been controversial. Moreover, most Googling of the term “Virgin Forests” retrieves pages with “Old Growth Forests” in the title. Other words that come up again and again are “untouched” and “undisturbed” and “pristine”.

    It’s probably not hard to convince me not to use a term that that I don’t use anyway. Never the less, good on Erik and Sharon for bringing the topic up. More knowledge about how language is used (and misused) is always good.

    • FlipYrWhig

      But calling it Old Growth is blatantly discriminatory. What, things that are young don’t deserve preservation and protection? That’s appalling. Shame on you! Australia.

      • DrDick

        Old growth, on the other hand, is an accurate descriptor that distinguishes it from secondary or other younger forests.

        • joe from Lowell

          If this conversation had been limited to merely the precision of the terminology, your comment would be the end of the conversation. “Old-growth” does, indeed, more effectively depict the relevant difference, and uses on-point, non-metaphorical terminology.

          However, that’s not what the discussion is about, but rather, the cultural and political baggage associated with the terms.

        • FlipYrWhig

          But it also carries the cultural assumption that things that are old deserve protection. And I think you’ll find that descriptions of “old growth” forests use words like “majestic” (blatantly royalist!), “primitive” (like Noble Savages!), and “untouched” (blatantly misogynist and slut-shaming), by the standards adduced in this discussion. Old and new are no less value-laden than touched and untouched.

  • Manju

    after reading this thread, I finally see how a tree can fall in the forest and no one can hear it.

  • BradP

    I don’t really hear the phrase “virgin forest” much at all, but the critique there is reasonable.

    I’m just not really sure why nature as female is a bad thing, or how it promotes human as male. Nature is a female because it is personified as the life-giving/nurturing mother.

    • rea

      Nature is a female because it is personified as the life-giving/nurturing mother.

      E. g., not virgin.

      • BradP

        Right. I have no argument with the point about “virgin” forests. Its not something I ever really thought about, but Erik’s point makes sense.

        I’m just not sure why nature being personified as a woman is particularly bad.

        • DrDick

          It is because of how that frames the nature of women. If they are “natural” then they are more spontaneous and less cultured and rational. the issue is not so much about how we conceive nature (though there are issues with that as well), as with the way these metaphors frame and inform our understanding of women.

          • Nicely said, DrDick. I always enjoy getting your take on this kinda thing.

          • BradP

            It is because of how that frames the nature of women. If they are “natural” then they are more spontaneous and less cultured and rational.

            Fair enough. I never got that sort of vibe from it. Like I said, I always thought it was “Mother Nature” due to the traditional (and biological) role of nurturing and providing mother.

            I’m in no position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t get offended by, but I personally don’t really get it. To me “Mother Nature” is not about putting a label on women, but putting a sympathetic personification on it.

            • FlipYrWhig

              There isn’t just one answer to the political import of these metaphors. One the one hand, Mother Nature capitalizes on an association with nurture and care and other stereotypically “feminine” virtues — to set up the idea that nature cares for us and we for it. There’s a centuries-old tradition of feminists claiming as powerful the figure of the mother, or figures of fertility. On the other hand, metaphorical feminizing can also suggest disempowerment and passivity.

              As a parallel case, the famous anti-pollution commercial with the crying Indian relies on an association between Indians, mysticism, and nature. You could say that it’s bad for indigenous peoples to use them as metaphors. Or you could say that it’s effective at creating the guilt and sympathy you kind of want to elevate your cause, and if nobody cares about your cause, you’re sunk.

              • DrDick

                As with women and nature, this equation also marginalizes Indians by rendering them as pre-rational and uncultured. That the trope is sometimes seized on by members of both groups for their own purposes (which it is), does not diminish its power to diminish them.

                • BradP

                  As with women and nature, this equation also marginalizes Indians by rendering them as pre-rational and uncultured.

                  I get this. But I have only really thought of the custodial role applied to women and the “noble savage” stereotype applied to Indians.

                  If I were asked to guess before reading this thread, I would have said that more people associate males “as pre-rational and uncultured”.

                  It is certainly offered as explanation/apologetics of male stupidity enough.

                  Whatever the case, I must say I greatly enjoy these comment threads that are less topical and partisan, and this is another example why Loomis is the most interesting blogger on here.

                  (Don’t worry, though, every blogger on here has his charms and strengths)

              • joe from Lowell

                One the one hand, Mother Nature capitalizes on an association with nurture and care and other stereotypically “feminine” virtues — to set up the idea that nature cares for us and we for it. There’s a centuries-old tradition of feminists claiming as powerful the figure of the mother, or figures of fertility.

                Now, the use of the Gaia personification is quite different, in that it takes away the maternal, nurturing imagery and replaces it with the image of someone who takes care of herself, and that we are bound to respect. But it is still gendered.

                • BradP

                  But it is still gendered.

                  Which is still interesting. If it “takes away the maternal, nurturing imagery and replaces it with the image of someone who takes care of herself”, there must be a reason for the assumption of gender, and I’m just not seeing it.

                  I think there are more “natural” (as opposed to culturally learned connotations) causes for the tendency to see nature as matriarchal.

                • Uncle Kvetch

                  If I were asked to guess before reading this thread, I would have said that more people associate males “as pre-rational and uncultured”.

                  It is certainly offered as explanation/apologetics of male stupidity enough.

                  That’s a really interesting observation, Brad. It’s true that there are contradictions and paradoxes galore once you start to really dig deeply. But consider that in both cases, women end up subordinate:

                  1) woman as nature: not in control of her emotions, incapable of rationality

                  2) woman as culture: destined by her nature (no pun intended) for the homebound roles of “civilizing” her mate and children

                • joe from Lowell

                  Well, Brad, there are plentiful examples of women being cast as both – or rather, of both civilization and nature being cast as women. We see a female civilization working against men’s brutish nature, as well as a female nature, working to liberate men from the rigidly-male confines of society.

                  We also see both of those dynamics described negatively – feminized society denying men their birthright as wild hunter-whatever, and (you have to go back a ways) feminized nature (such as pagan witches in the Middle Ages) drawing men away from the goodness of civilized life.

                  What these all have in common is the casting of humanity as male, so that humanity’s relationship with nature (or civilization) – that is, something other than HIMself that HE lives with – as being like the relationship between man and woman.

                • BradP

                  But consider that in both cases, women end up subordinate:

                  This is entirely true. Where to me the gender registers as reverence, respect, and gratitude (very similar to that you may feel for your mother), there are a great deal of people who will use any invocation of gender to reaffirm their stereotypes.

                  But to me we are getting to the point where simply invoking gender becomes problematic. And it has already been noted that groups will adopt gendered metaphors to advance gender-related causes.

                  I wonder if there is a gendered metaphor that really is acceptable.

                • BradP

                  What these all have in common is the casting of humanity as male,

                  I just don’t see it being common to all.

                  Nature as nurturing woman does not assume man to be the subject of that nurturing. It just means that nature isn’t personified as a nurturing male.

                  Specifically this:

                  We see a female civilization working against men’s brutish nature,

                  This is an extremely common stereotype and points to women as the humanizing factor.

                • joe from Lowell

                  But the metaphor of nature-as-nurturer was created to explain the relationship between humanity and nature. Of course we’re the ones being nurtured in the metaphor. Whose mother, other than ours, is Mother Nature supposed to be?

                • BradP

                  Whose mother, other than ours, is Mother Nature supposed to be?

                  Mother – child does not imply woman – man. Mothers have sons and daughters.

                  This is nitpicking really.

                  The bottom line is this:

                  One must be aware of one’s audience and the connotations certain words will…um…engender within them.

          • FlipYrWhig

            But, DrDick, for that to be a sexist view itself presumes that the rational is obviously superior. And _that_ is deemed a sexist view by the French feminists like Cixous and Irigaray, if you remember the vogue for the word “phallogocentrist” the way I do.

            • Actually, the idea of women as closer to nature and men as more rational and thus more alienated from nature is sexist whatever one thinks is superior. (Or if one thinks they are different but equal.)

              The point is that they presume — without any basis — that there is an inherent difference of this sort based on sex.

              This distinction is all over Faulkner and often the women are better off because of it (though basically amoral). Of course, when they act contrary to this natural mode and more like men, they become somewhat monstrous.

              Anyway, like I said upthread, I don’t think this means we should flip out about the use of feminine (or masculine) language to inanimate objects. I don’t think that’s realistic and it precludes some more vivid and powerful ways of speaking. But I do think it’s worth unpacking the way we tend to use language and considering the underlying points being made. That’s more interesting than the idea that calling a forest female is bad.

              Also, I just don’t think calling a forest female means you are calling women like nature in a mirror image way. You are probably playing on underlying ideas that make the use of female imagery for forests especially powerful.

              • Um, I realize that the reference to Faulkner is weird and out of context, as he has nothing to do with anything. It’s just something I’ve thought about before and it seemed to fit with the discussion. It’s not just him, it’s all over.

              • FlipYrWhig

                That’s not at all how French feminists saw it. They wanted to explode the idea that reason and rationality and teleological thinking were superior to emotion, feeling, and associative unpredictability. That’s why they made an equation between logic and the phallus, seeking to undermine both at once.

                • DrDick

                  However, our culture privileges rationality and marginalizes those who are seen as lacking it, which would be my larger point. Also the French Feminist position is inherently sexist in that it assumes undemonstrated biological differences between the sexes and assumes that there are only two possible sexual states (there are over 2 dozen intersex states which are not unambiguously either). No one has ever demonstrated any cognitive impact of either estrogens or androgens other than on sex drive. Testosterone levels correlate to sex drive in both sexes, as does estrogen in females.

  • MPAVictoria

    Did I get lost and end up at shakesville by mistake?

    • I think it’s good we have these discussions on LGM. It’s just too bad the commenters skew so much towards the male side. We could do with more female commenters, not just for their input, but also for the tempering influence the presence of females tends to have on males.

      • FlipYrWhig

        I think you just established that women are by nature civilizing forces. You, sir, are part of the problem, at least as described above. :P

  • Dave

    The original post was about 30% pure fail. The comments, however, have been averaging a solid 80%.

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