Building a Better Parody: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Sex Worker Stigma

About a month ago, Kate Donovan wrote a post making aNo Flying Spaghetti Monster good case that it’s time to ditch the whole Flying Spaghetti Monster thing, and I’m inclined to agree with her. Partly because it’s served its purpose, but mostly because it incorporates sexism and homophobia into its mythology. Specifically, she points out some passages in The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, by Bobby Henderson, which describe the rewards of the Pastafarian afterlife as including a stripper factory and a beer volcano:

We’d like to tell you all about our Heaven, which features a Stripper Factory and a giant Beer Volcano.

[....]

Q: If there’s a Beer Volcano and a Stripper Factory in Heaven, what’s FSM Hell like?

A: We’re not entirely certain, but we imagine it’s similar to FSM Heaven, only the beer is stale and the strippers have venereal diseases. Not unlike Las Vegas.

The strippers aren’t all women, of course, but straight men aren’t required to get rid of their homophobia in Pastafarian heaven:

Q: Are there male strippers in FSM Heaven for women?
A: Probably, but they are invisible to the non-homo guys.

Note two things in that passage: first, heterosexuality is the norm in Pastafarian Heaven. And second, homophobia is assumed to be the default; if straight men have to look upon the icky sexual desires of heterosexual women or gay men, it can’t be heaven. Bi, trans, and genderqueer people aren’t even anywhere in the equation. For someone like me, who’s perpetually curious about other people’s sexualities because it expands the way I see my own, it sounds like hell.

When I read those quotes, they sounded vaguely familiar, but they had fallen right out of my brain long ago. Like most religious believers, I just knew the basics and ignored the details. But, as the theists say, God (or the Devil) is in the details.

Commenting on PZ’s blog, Jen McCreight makes an alternative case for the beer volcano and stripper factory:

I’ve always thought the stripper factory was just a secular riff on the whole 72 virgins concept – that it was making fun of the concept of getting to heaven and receiving a bunch of people who only exist for your sexual pleasure (hence them being mass produced in a factory). I never thought of it as commentary on actual strippers and their agency, but just ludicrous satire.

I can see why you might try to argue it’s problematic, but oddly I see it as actually being feminist. And hilarious.

A depiction of the beer volcanoes and stripper factories in Pastafarian Heaven.

A depiction of the beer volcanoes and stripper factories in Pastafarian Heaven.

Jen’s feminist bona fides are unquestionable and hard-won, and I respect the hell out of her, but I disagree on this one. The problem with the stripper factory is not just one of sexism, but also of whorephobia.1 The two are distinct from one another, although there is a lot of overlap. In many cases, they’re interdependent, which is what makes the fact that so many feminists engage in naked whorephobia so distressing.

The main argument in defense of the stripper factories as satire is that there are male strippers too, even if they are politely made invisible for the “non-homo guys.” Whether you buy this as a defense against sexism or not, it doesn’t even touch on the whorephobia problem. People of all genders do sex work, and they all suffer stigma for it. Trans, genderqueer, and cis-male strippers aren’t aberrations; they’re just deleted from any conversation that assumes cisgendered heterosexuality as a universal norm. On Earth as in Pastafarian Heaven, they are made invisible to the “normal” folks.

The problem about the stripper factory isn’t so much the sexism of it, but the way it plays along with the idea that sex workers have no desires, no thoughts, and no worth of their own. The strippers in Pastafarian Hell have STI’s, and that’s not bad because of what it does to the strippers; it’s bad because it punishes the people who want to fuck the strippers. The lives and health of the strippers themselves are irrelevant, except in how well they serve others.

Until Kate Donovan’s post inspired me to do a little research, I was only marginally aware of the beer volcanoes and stripper factories in Pastafarianism. The factories have apparently been the source of much contention for years, and have produced many epic attempts to rationalize them. This 2008 post from the FSM discussion boards is a good example of the inherent problems:

Since they’re made in a factory, as opposed to in a studio, it’s reasonable to assume the strippers—male, female or otherwise—in question are probably outwardly-realistic but mindless automatons. As it says, however, if you want a real relationship, that’s perfectly workable as well, and if there’s not a good pre-existing match for you, I believe there may be a studio where they can make custom-made, real, free-willed humans (probably according to the FSM’s specifications rather than yours, since he knows better than you what would be a good match for you, seeing as he’s your creator as well. Your average single guy, given the opportunity, would probably choose Sexy McSlut regardless of whether someone else would make him happier. That’s what the factory strippers are for, anyway!)

The stripper factories in Pastafarianism fail as satire—and fail brutally—because this is literally how we treat sex workers in the real world. It is like making a satirical portrait of Earth that depicts blue skies and green trees. We make public policy based on these ideas. One hot issue among activists right now is that sex workers in major cities are often forced to choose between using condoms or risking jail, because police can use condoms as evidence of prostitution. Every December 17, sex workers around the world hold events where they read the names of their colleagues who were murdered that year. They hold these events and read the names because if they don’t, no one will; dead hookers are a punchline, not a problem.

It is already normal to consider strippers mass-produced, interchangeable automatons. The Pastafarian heaven doesn’t satirize that; it panders to it.

What’s the Point?

At 1,100+ words into this post, a lot of people might justifiably ask why I’m bothering with taking this apart so thoroughly. It might even seem hypocritical, since I started off mocking some people for taking the FSM too seriously. And admittedly, even from this side of the keyboard, I’m a little surprised at how much thought I’ve put into this. I had originally planned on stopping about 600 words or so back.

There’s several reasons. First of all, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is probably the single most well-known aspect of modern atheism. Ask people outside of the community what they know about modern atheism, and they’ll name either Richard Dawkins or the FSM. Active atheists regularly use it as a tongue-in-cheek way to de-god their language: “Oh, for FSM’s sake!” When something is that key to introducing outsiders to your community, you need to know what it’s saying. More importantly, you need to be able to stand up for it.

So what does the stripper factory say about atheism’s relationship to sex workers?  The first and most prominent image of sex workers that atheists presents to outsiders is as vacant shells. Male or female or otherwise, that makes a very clear statement that sex workers are not part of “us.” It says that atheists are determined to see sex workers the same way theocrats and demagogues do.

The notion that the male strippers will be invisible to “non-homo guys” is just as bad, if not worse. It amounts to a demand that queer sexualities and genders stay invisible so that they don’t disturb the straight guys. As with the strippers, that’s the reality that we live in now, and any atheism that’s not willing to call it out as hot, steaming bullshit is something I want no part of.

That brings us to the second reason, which is more urgent: this isn’t just about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If these attitudes were tidily isolated in an obscure passage of Bobby Henderson’s book, I’d just groan “Christ, what an asshole,” and move on. But the sad truth is that atheists in general really, really suck at talking about sex, especially if it’s not based on the desires of hetero, white cisgendered males. Conversations about sexuality in atheist circles are so stunted and restrictive that I would say that we’re still in the process of bringing sex out of the closet, never mind issues of radical sexuality like queerness, negotiated consent, sex work, BDSM, transgender issues, and porn. We are still at the stage where we have ferocious fights over whether it’s appropriate for members of the community to threaten to kick a female blogger in the cunt. If we’re not willing to have serious discussions about the mock mythology of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there’s no way that we can move on to the more sophisticated conversations about sexuality that we desperately need.

 

There are other reasons for ditching the FSM thing, too. It’s not that it didn’t have its purpose, but I’ve felt for a long time that the joke had passed the point of flogging a dead horse into smashing the dried bones up into tiny chips. The cases of alleged Pastafarians in Austria and New Jersey demanding to wear colanders on their heads for official photos should surely have been a red flag to everyone that the joke had gone on far too long and was being taken way too seriously. The secret to putting on a good show is knowing when to make your exit.

This is a good chance for atheists to demonstrate the difference between us and the theists. Religion make a big selling point out of how their religions provide truths that are eternal and unchanging, as if that was a good thing. Even the most liberal Christians are pretty much stuck with the words of Jesus as the basis for their religion. Depending on the social issues of the time, their interpretation of what Jesus actually meant changes radically over the years, but if you want to stay a Christian, it is always a given that Jesus’s teachings were moral and right and just, and are as relevant to the problems of the twenty-first century as they are to the first century.

The beauty of atheism is that we are free to explore and move ahead. We don’t have to defend old ideas just because they were valuable to us ten years ago, or a hundred, or a thousand. What matters to us is the reality of how ideas work in the world today, and whether they benefit the people living here and now. If they don’t, then we should discard them and move on.

The reality is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a great way of satirizing the ridiculous assertions when Kansas declared that “creation science” could be taught in public schools. It was a good joke, and we all laughed. But we’ve been telling that joke for eight years, and it’s getting a little frayed around the edges. Atheism is different than it was then, and Pastafarianism has gone from being something that stimulates thought to something that prevents us from talking about sexuality and gender without a leer and a sneer. It is one more reminder that we’ve done a shitty job at making the atheist community welcoming to queers, to women, to trans people, and to sex workers.

As atheists, we need jokes and humor to make our point. But I think it’s time to find some new jokes.

Thanks to Kate Donovan for her original post bringing the problems of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to my attention. Check out her shiny new blog at FTB, Gruntled and Hinged.

Chris Hall

About Chris Hall

A somewhat nerdy pervert who looks (mostly) normal on the outside, Chris Hall is fascinated by the politics, culture, and art of sex. He has written for CarnalNation, SF Weekly, Slixa, numerous anthologies, and a dog blog that will go discreetly unnamed here.


  1. Activist Thierry Schaffauser gives one good definition of whorephobia: “Whorephobia can be defined as the fear or the hate of sex workers. Sex workers like me would argue that it also embraces paternalistic attitudes that deem us a public nuisance, spreaders of disease, offenders against decency or unskilled victims who don’t know what is good for them and who need to be rescued.”