Wednesday, October 29, 2008

5. The Female Body As Property

My embroidery called "Choices".

The fifth post in this series about why feminism still matters. The earlier ones are:

1. The Right to Go Out
2. Planet of the Guys
3. Our Father Who Art in Heaven
4. The Invisible Women

Yesterday my visiting alien from outer space came to me all excited (you can see it from the quivering antennae). It had learned the concept of property, both public and private, and it had decided to apply it to women's bodies and sexuality. Its conclusion was that women and their sexuality are private property, belonging to husbands, fathers and sons, in much of the world, including most Muslim countries, and that women in the Western democracies are public property, belonging to everybody.

"Nononono!" I said. "You have it all wrong. Women do own their bodies and sexuality in most countries of this world. They can decide what to wear and who to have sex with. They can decide if they will be pregnant and so on."

My alien friend wasn't convinced. It asked me what would happen if I went out shirtless and braless, for example. Wouldn't I get arrested, unless my name was not Echidne but Ed? And can a woman choose whether she uses contraception or not, in all countries? Can she use it if her husband doesn't want her to? Can she breastfeed her baby in public?

It then asked me about pornography. Why is the majority of porn about women's bodies? Why is most of it aimed for men's consumption. Who owns the right to view the generic "female body"?

Sometimes I really hate this alien. I had to explain about the sexual difference between men and women, how men get turned on by the very sight of the female body and how that means that women must cover those bits of their bodies which mostly inflame men's desires. Otherwise the men can't control themselves. Men are so much more visual than women, and the society reflects that, by regulating the amount of female nudity allowed in the public sphere. We can't have naked breasts slip out suddenly on television, in the middle of a football game, say.

"Breasts.." mused the alien. "They are for nurturing the young humans, right? But what about pornography, then? If men are more visual than women and easily inflamed, shouldn't porn be illegal or severely regulated? It sounds to me as if women are not in control of the female body, even in the West. Someone else, is. Someone else determines when that body can turn up naked in your visual fields."

OK. So I stormed out of the room, slamming the door. The sound almost covered the alien yelling at me something about ancient Chinese foot binding and female genital mutilation and plastic breasts and the permeability of the female body in general. I'm sending the poor thing back as a rabid feminist and its planet has no genders!

Now I wish I hadn't lost my temper, because even though the alien got some of the arguments clearly wrong, there is something odd about the way we view the female body and female sexuality in general, something non-exclusive, something that is more like a shared natural resource than a characteristic of the individual woman. Even the very concept of a sexy picture brings to mind -- what? Probably the idea of scantily clad women or naked women in alluring positions. And this idea is so general that even women or men who don't get turned on by women's bodies might get it. It's as if sex is something women "own" in a very passive sense: The sex is there. Now come and get it if you can.

This is a very different view of property from the first one this post mentions, but it's almost as common, especially among the traditionalists. According to them, it is women who are responsible for sex, the gatekeepers who are somehow supposed to control men's sexual desires by how they dress and by what they say. This view ignores the possibility of rape and other forced uses of female sexuality and altogether gives women far too much responsibility for something they probably can't control. Think of that lack of control this way: If men indeed are almost complete slaves to visual images then a woman walking below a porn poster would be at risk of attention from passing men even if she was totally covered except for one visible eye. Because that poster is there, inflaming the dangerous desires of men.

Now, I don't actually believe that men are slaves to visual images of sex. Most of the arguments I've heard in its support are circular: Why is there so much porn for men? Because men are very visual in their sexuality. What's your evidence for that? All that porn for men. And round we go again.

This post is a mess, mostly (though so is our overall discussion about sexuality), and I don't want to give the impression that women are total victims in the sexual games people play, because it's certainly possible to play these games with the hand of cards women are given and to sometimes win. Still, to understand female sexuality within our current cultures is not possible without understanding how we define sex in general and who owns the female body.