And now with massive media attention Henning Bech’s Women and Men.
The author’s gender alone draws attention. For who can recall when we in Denmark last had a male professor with an impeccable overview of feminist formation theory and thorough knowledge of Danish and international gender / women research? You´re right, never! Recently, the Danish debate on literary canonization demonstrated how weak women’s research is in penetrating influential circles of educational and socio-cultural power, even in one of the most productive areas.
And in addition to this is Bech’s questioning the very foundation of feminist theory inciting intense debate in the media machine, whether men (still) have power over women, and not least that he includes sensitive and tabooed subjects as pedophilia in his argument that woman/sex
research is threatened by ritual thinking and mechanisms of repression on a par with all other sciences.
Hyper-conscious feminism criticism
Henning Bech is also a pioneer in gay research. In 1986, together with Karin
Lützen, he wrote
Desire or Need? Women’s and Men’s Homosexuality, the first and only public elucidation of the subject. As is evident from the title, gays and lesbians were treated separately. A year later, the pioneering work
When Men Meet; Homosexuality and the Homosexuals appeared, in which Bech simply wrote lesbians out of his homosexuality concept. Since then, homosexual men have been the focal point around which his scientific research revolves. It culminated with his doctoral thesis
The Leisure World, Studies in Modernity, Masculinity, Homosexuality and Sex
Women and Men is thus treading new ground, and Bech is keenly aware of the overzealous critics waiting for him out there. Besides the heterosexuals, who have heard enough of the homosexual cultural avant-garde, and lesbians who are fed up with gay imperialism, there are now also women guarding the property rights of feminism itself.
Confessions of faith in the historical justification of the women’s movement, and the merits of academic feminism permeate this book like a litany. These parades hit the forefront in specially designed mine fields:
“The possibility that rape accusations can be used against men (I write can be used) by some women as a weapon against men in intramural or institutional power struggles” (p. 98).
Gallantly and politically correct, Bech mentions the ladies first, and “she” is used consistently as a collective name for both sexes.
But then any text with Henning Bech’s signature on it is in its very substance about homosexual men, and the book’s strength derives from its solid rock foundation in male and homo research and the new light this approach sheds on classical feministic themes. For example, he has obviously important points to make in his analysis of
Report on Future Equality Work and its Organizing (1999), and of the treatment of laws on registered partnership [Translator:
'gay marriage'], adoption and artificial insemination.
In the Report’s 120-page account of Equality Work, “men“ constitute half a page in a concluding summary under the caption “Other Groups,” together with “youth,” “foreign women,” “lesbians and single women” (p. 98). Even men’s shorter duration of life is only mentioned as a problem for women, namely with respect to calculating pensions (p. 97). It is equally paradoxical when (female) politicians, who otherwise build up their own profiles on feminism, discriminate against single homosexuals in matters of adoption and artificial insemination with reference to the family ideals of Morten
Limits to the Great “Feminist Story”
Henning Bech is of the opinion that a greater equalization has taken place in gender power relations than appears in woman/sex research, and that its very theoretical and methodical premises constitute a barrier to registering radical changes.
He substantiates this view in the book’s three parts, of which the first two “Classical Feminist Stories” and “More Stories” are a critical reading of mainstream feminist theory from the late 1960’s up until today, and the third “Even More Stories”, which is his own contribution. As is proper and laudable he makes an introductory account of his own starting points.
This is where the canon balls of feminist criticism are fired in an account of the last 50 year history of science, where the ideal of objectivity is replaced by conceptions of continuous struggle for different paradigms with a limited scope of understanding. In order to indicate the subjective “element of a cock-and-bull story, which doesn’t allow for certain ’proof’ or rejection” (p. 11), Bech uses “story telling” in the sense of scientifically verifiable
narrative. [Translator: It must be possible to demonstrate that a story is true or false.]
Professionalism and critical reflection must guarantee scientific quality, and he lays down a check list with rules of care, for example, considerations of whether there are binding “passionate identity formations” to a paradigm (p. 16), and whether the given frame of interpretation facilitates research results that promote “a good life”. Bech focuses his interest on flighty stories that grasp change and future, rather than the more terrestrial that focus on estates and variations of structural characteristics, which feminism typically does.
As a method of text analysis, Bech prefers the hermeneutic, which gives him the possibility of operating with pre-language or non-discursive reality, a central concept in his view on the sexes.
The sex relation cannot be an equation
Classical feministic story telling, according to Bech, takes on shape in the form of theories of patriarchy, represented by Heidi
Hartmann, Sylvia Walby and Robert W. Connell, discursive [Translator: logically developed reasoning] theories represented by Judith Butler, and theories on negotiating represented by Hanne
Common to these prototypes is the concept that gender relations are perceived as hierarchical,
dichotomic, structural and universal, which is why they, by definition, are separatist with a built-in liberation and gender-struggle perspective. They are appropriately credited with the development of theories of male dominance and the concept of female suppression in the gender division of labor and the family and in matters of sexual expression.
Bech is just not of the opinion that the relation between men and women today can be described adequately, gaining insight, when applying hierarchical and dichotomic terms (antagonisms). At least not exclusively, and absolutely not, in the present day Queendom of Denmark. He concedes that classical feminism potentially embraces both continuity and change potentials and that these potentials are utilized differently in patriarchal and negotiation theory, which the names themselves indicate. But for him, it is a question of degree and not fundamental difference.
[Translator: Bech includes feminist story telling as a supplement to other stories; he rejects classical feminism when it insists on having all the answers and the only answers.]
The comparison technique is also applied in the second section, where works over the past 10 years by sex researchers like Lis
Højgaard, Dorthe Gert Simonsen, Randi Marcussen, Mette Bryld & Ninna Lykke, Anne Scott Sorensen og Dorte Marie Soendergaard are considered within such conceptual frameworks as
Deconstuction, Cyborg, and Queer. Despite many positive tendencies, Bech
nevertheless, also finds hierarchy and dichotomy in the sub-text of these stories.
New gender philosophy between Essentializing and Constructivism
The Third Part of Bech´s Women and Men consists of three different attempts in which the author pursues liberating his writing from hierarchical and dichotomic matrices by means of his literary pen.
The First Part is what Bech calls the pedophile panic, the great public interest in sexual misuse of children in the wake of a legal court case
[Translator: Denmark’s biggest, first indictment and conviction of its kind] against a male day care employee in
Gladsaxe, Denmark, 1997. Bech questions coherence between this internationally documented excessive fear and the prevailing concept of gender relations and seeks, among other things, the source of anxiety in the fact that women now are so heavily engaged in the work force that they have lost control of family life.
The Second Part of Bech´s work deals with pornography and focuses on an analysis of a TV series called “Rut and Heat”, where the participating women and men, according to Bech are equal, enjoying the same status in performing their TV roles. Bech’s text is a series of letters to a foreign female colleague that begins with: “There is a country where pornography isn´t a problem” (p. 248), and subscribes to the old notion of Denmark as a gender egalitarian pioneer country.
In Bech´s own mind, this is due to Danish Brandesian Cultural Radicalism and broad-minded national liberalism.
(Translator: Danish Brandesian Cultural Radicalism first appeared in the late 19th Century and permeated Danish culture more than any other politico-cultural movement until around the later part of the 20th Century. This movement is the Danish
forerunner to and continuation after the hippie cultural explosion in the 60’s and 70’s in Denmark with personal and individual liberation goals as its paramount ideals.)
The Third Part is a very ambitious attempt to find a new gender philosophical position between Essentialism and Social Constructivism by means of Heidegger’s Existentialism, which does not include any discussions of gender, so Bech himself must make the connection.
As opposed to the rest of the book which is impeccably conveyed, it is not possible for the reader to appropriate for him or her self the contents of this chapter without prior knowledge to
Heidegger, the terminology of which is in the pure and originally untreated Heidegger form:
(Translator: In the book Bech has made it quite possible for the reader to skip this section, if inclined to do so, without losing meaning or continuity with the rest of the book. I will not attempt to translate this myself, but will ask Bech himself to translate it for me when he returns in August from a research project abroad called "Living in
Gender interest is a key concept for Bech, since we typically develop an interest in our own sex, once we become conscious of it, before we direct our interest toward the opposite sex.
Women and Men can indeed be read in many ways and on different levels. There are, for example in the text itself, numerous traces of hidden agendas. But I´ve taken Bech at his word that his work is to be appreciated as one of numerous stories on science, feminism and gender - in attentive and unprejudiced dialog with the already existing stories - thought as a stepping stone for those to come.
En route I’ve been in outright disagreement, in deep doubt, quite astonished and throughout the reading experience was informed and entertained.
The book is recommended reading.
Jytte Larsen is an historian and editor of The Danish Womens´ Biographical
Encyclopaedia. She writes regularly for FORUM.