Be pure. Be sexy. Be a nurturer. Don’t breastfeed in public. Messages to women are more conflicted than ever.
We live in an advanced era of cloud computing, virtual personal assistants and cars that can parallel park themselves. So why is it that women so often feel like we’re still living in the dark ages? The question of whether we should even have access to birth control is still a part of our everyday political discourse. Fathers are symbolically claiming their daughters’ virginity. We’re slammed with objectifying ads that tell us to be more sexy, then shamed for claiming our sexual identities. And perhaps the saddest part of all is that it isn’t just men who are forcing these forms of suppression and control onto women’s bodies; the pressure comes from other women, too.
Young girls are such delicate, corruptible little flowers that their wise, protective fathers must not only rule their sexuality with an iron fist, but demand that their daughters pledge their virginity to them. So goes the rationale of the Purity Ball movement, engineered largely by Christian fathers as a means of control over their progeny’s blossoming bodies.
What makes this even more disturbing is the fact that these girls are not making this decision for themselves at puberty (and even then, they’re too young to realize just what their fathers are asking of them.) Girls are brought to their first Purity Ball at the age of five, where they prance around in white dresses, listen to sermons about living a “pure life” and pledge themselves to their fathers. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the girls are given ominous warnings of the “terrible consequences” of losing their virginity, and essentially told that they have no input on their own burgeoning sexual identities at all. Many girls receive lock charms on necklaces, the keys held by their fathers, who will pass them over to their husbands on their wedding day in a transfer of male power.
Of course, there’s no equivalent movement that attempts to force young men into pledging their virginity to their mothers. Because that would just be weird.
Taking control over young women’s vaginas to a far greater extreme, virginity tests are the literal examination of a woman’s hymen to be sure that she hasn’t had sex before marriage. These tests are illegal in many countries, and Amnesty International classifies them as torture. That doesn’t stop them from happening all over the world, both in institutional and private settings. Some cultures require that brides-to-be undergo such a test before their wedding day. Last year in Egypt, female protesters were subjected to them by military authorities; an official explained “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place.”
Because if they aren’t virgins, clearly they’re asking for it.
Think this practice is long gone in the west? The British government used virginity testing for young female immigrants until 1979, believing that if they were virgins, they were more likely to be telling the truth about moving to Britain for marriage.
Women are told to sit at the back of the bus – in Brooklyn. In Israel’s Beit Shemesh, a growing sect of powerful ultra-Orthodox extremists are fighting to keep women separate from men in nearly all public settings, even preventing women from going to the podium to accept their rightfully earned prizes at an awards ceremony. In many other areas of the world, the segregation of men and women has been going on for so long, and is so deeply entrenched in local culture, that changing it seems like an impossible task. The problem is particularly troubling in Islamic cultures, where fundamentalists place strict limits on interaction between women and men who aren’t their relatives.
In many cases, the reasoning behind segregating women from men is preserving the “virtue” of women and the “honor” of men, the idea being that women are not only helpless against the temptation of jumping on any random men who cross their paths, but that the mere sight of women could corrupt and distract men who are supposed to be focusing on more important things. It also reinforces the idea of women as property, who must be governed by male overlords.
Our supposedly progressive president refused to relax restrictions on Plan B, preventing women of all ages from accessing the morning-after pill directly off drugstore and supermarket shelves. Our legislators threaten to cave to fringe groups that want to redefine life as beginning at the moment of fertilization, which would outlaw all contraceptives, including birth control pills. One of our Republican presidential nominees, Rick Santorum, not only believes that birth control damages society, but wants to make all abortions illegal, even in the case of rape or incest, saying women should “make the best of a bad situation.” A bill in Georgia proposed the persecution of women who couldn’t prove that they didn’t cause their own miscarriages.
In other nations around the world, women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies and lives are in even more desperate straits. Women are all too often seen as passive baby-making machines, essentially existing only to further the continuation of the species.
Breasts are so sexy – except when you’re feeding your baby. Then, they’re just gross. So gross that people will go out of their way to yell at mothers trying to provide her infant with the best sustenance in the world, and shame them into hiding. The problem is, society at large only wants to think of breasts in a sexual context; we’re so far removed from the biological realities of our species that many people feel disturbed by the sight of a baby suckling. Some honestly believe that women only breastfeed in public because they’re exhibitionists or trying to make a statement, not because their babies are hungry. Some even view it as pornographic. It’s a sad state of affairs when a mother is told that a dirty public restroom is a more appropriate place to feed her baby than a table at a restaurant.
The great cover-up
In Saudi Arabia, women who are already shrouded from head to toe in impenetrable layers of cloth, even in the harsh heat of the desert, are being told to cover up their sexy eyes. If a man decides that a certain woman has eyes that are too “tempting,” he has the right to order her to cover them immediately lest she face fines or public lashings. In Israel, the same extremists segregating the sexes are spitting on little girls who are dressed “too provocatively” as they walk to school. There are even movements within America to return to some misguided Victorian celebration of modesty. Women have come a long way since the days when they could be institutionalized just for having a bad reputation, but they’re still treated as if their bodies are weapons with which they might accidentally (or intentionally) bring ruin upon themselves and the men who look their way.
Slut shaming and rape blaming
Well, if you don’t cover up, don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you when you get raped. That’s the message that’s foisted upon us by modesty advocates and other groups who argue that showing virtually any skin equates to inviting violent sexual assault. And if you dare to claim your own identity as a sexual being, you should be ashamed of yourself. Slut-shaming has everything to do with patriarchal directives for women – how we should dress, how we should act, how we should conduct our sex lives. If we don’t conform, and especially if we dare to be aggressive about our sexuality, we’re ridiculed. Men, on the other hand, get a free pass – the more frequent and public their conquests, the more admiration and approval they gain.
On the other side of the coin is the duality of expectations on female roles in society, specifically the wife versus the mistress, the modest and nurturing woman who is practically asexual versus the sex object that only exists for the pleasure of others. Both roles objectify women by removing their personalities and individuality. Sexual objectification is much more in-your-face, pushed on women every day by the mass media, treating women like commodities to be ogled and traded. For all of the pressure to be chaste there’s an equal opposing force pressuring women to be vapid, fleshly blow-up dolls. A prime example is a t-shirt offered by Abercrombie and Fitch (the same store hawking push-up bras for kids) emblazoned with the slogan, “With These, Who Needs Brains?”
Lesbian torture clinics
It’s no secret that homosexuality, another basic biological reality of our species, is seen by certain groups as something to be “cured.” But your jaw might just drop in horror when you learn that some of these “cure clinics” use physical torture and psychological abuse in an attempt to “straighten out” queer women. Ecuadorian activists are speaking out about 200 torture clinics operating under the guise of rehabilitation centers where both men and women are shackled, starved and sexually abused. Thankfully, a Change.org petition has brought about the beginning of the end to this practice in Ecuador, but we’re all too aware that there are still plenty of other groups across the globe that want to dictate who you can and can’t have sex with.
Female genital mutilation
Circumcision is a touchy issue, even here in America where it’s routinely performed on baby boys. Delve into the sticky cultural context of female circumcision as it’s practiced in Africa, and you’re opening a whole other can of worms. Some African feminists maintain that female genital mutilation is part of their cultural heritage, and one that “first world feminists” have no right to condemn – just as Jewish and Muslim traditions dictate that circumcision is a must for boys. But many woomen can’t help but feel that these practices were designed to control women by robbing them of sexual pleasure. Can you imagine a cut to your unanesthetized clitoris as anything other than torture? This is controlling other people’s bodies to the extreme, and truth be told, maybe we should leave everybody’s genitals alone and let them decide what they want to do with them once they reach adulthood.