Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Paradoxes of Women and Sexuality

It's a very odd thing: On the one hand it is women who are traditionally expected to gate-keep (heterosexual) sex. On the other hand, it is women who are regulated and controlled and managed in the field of sex. It's as if women own sex but someone else owns women and tells them how to deliver it or not to deliver it.

Men are argued to have a stronger sexual instinct, an instinct that somehow cannot be controlled or managed by men on their own, an instinct which instead causes large markets to crop up to further incite desire and lust. Women are argued not to be that keen on sex, but still most societies traditionally make rules about how to limit women from having sex and how to ostracize and otherwise punish "loose" women. Women are both devilishly sexual and insatiable, what with all those multiple orgasms, and almost totally without sexual interests. A round-heeled woman is - well - round-heeled. A round-heeled man is a stud, an object of envy.

That is the first paradox, though perhaps a paradox only if we start from the assumption of no power imbalance between the sexes. The second paradox concerns the private-public definition of sex. Traditionally the women who have public sex have been separated from the women who have private sex. The former are hookers, whores, sluts, prostitutes or sex-workers, depending on the level of sophistication one wants to assume. The latter are ideally first virgins and then wives. In the private sector, a woman's sex is the property of one man. In the public sector,traditionally, a woman's sex is the property of all men, even if she is also managed by a pimp.

In a similar vein, women's naked bodies are viewed as either public or private property, to be revealed indiscriminately or to be hidden completely. Thus we get female newsreaders who are expected to show legs and breasts while reading news and thus we also get countries where nothing of women's bodies except the face can be shown on television. Often the paradoxes of private vs. public sex and the private vs. public ownership of women's bodies get confused with each other, and then we get those cross-cultural cases where some men from the Middle East think that all Western women are whores, say. But note that there is no real confusion about who is supposed to own the women's bodies or their sexuality in either case. At least when viewed traditionally and without feminist understanding.

The third paradox is linked to the first paradox I described but slightly different. It is the answer to the question: "Who is responsible for sex?" The traditional answer is almost always: "Women". Even when the woman in question has no real power to influence the events. This may be one reason why the victims of rape often feel so much guilt, wonder so incessantly about what they could have done differently, feel partly to blame even if they are not.

The radical clerics of this world want to control sexuality. And the way they want to control it is by forcing "modesty" on women. The way women dress is regarded as responsible for the way men might react. The burden of managing sexuality is put on women's shoulders. Hence it is women who become the guilty parties when sex escapes the role the society has limited it to.

The idea that women are responsible for men's sexuality is not just common among many Islamic mullahs but also among American fundamentalists. A recent "Modesty Survey" posted on an American website tells Christian ladies that they shouldn't wear sleeveless tops, fix their bra straps in public, wear bathing suits and so on. All this to "help their brothers in Christ to control lust".

The focus on women's modesty is the other side of the coin from the focus on women's immodesty. Both are desirable, actually, but in different places and by different women. This is where the whore vs. Madonna mythology is so handy. Women can be either bad women, available for sexual consumption by all and sundry, or good women, essentially asexual and bent on nothing but motherhood. That way sex is available when men want it but men can also have their own private property for procreation. But note that a "whore" can never say no and a "Madonna" surely is powerful enough to be responsible for all sexuality. It's a win-win for the patriarchy.