Punishing Women: A Woman’s Job?

Women judge each other’s sexual behavior and control each other's lives when they're led to believe it’s their only realistic source of control.

If you were looking for a poll to capture exactly how much of America is judgmental and mean-spirited—especially towards women—you couldn’t top the recent Rasmussen poll that found that 48 percent of Americans think abortion is “too easy” to get.  I’m not entirely sure why Rasmussen took the poll.  Lack of generosity towards others and a dark eye specifically towards those you resenting people perceived as young, sensual, and not weighted down by the responsibilities of adulthood, which is how the public (incorrectly) imagines your average abortion patient to be.  (In reality, the majority are mothers trying to make ends meet.)

You may as well have polled people asking, “Do believe kids these days listen to their music too loud?” or “Do you believe that you’re a sexually responsible person but there are some real sluts out there?”  Even though the reality is that women from all walks of life get abortions, the perception in the general public is that abortion is an indicator of sluttiness.  And sluts, last I checked, aren’t well regarded in our culture. When people imagine the obstacles between a woman and an abortion, they’re making an idealized judgment—some kind of major hassle that will teach the slut to keep her legs shut next time.  But mean-spiritedness, stereotypes, and generalized ideas about what counts as “promiscuous” aren’t something on which to base public policy.

I don’t know whether to be sadder that the public still has these stereotypes about who gets abortions, or that the public still thinks sexually free women are evil and deserve to be punished.

The anti-choice media was triumphant over this poll, mostly because it showed that women are more likely to want more obstacles for women seeking abortions.  According to anti-choicers, this somehow means this isn’t a women’s rights issue, even though the people who hold the right to abortion are women, aka the sex that gets pregnant by accident.  But there’s no reason to think reproductive freedom isn’t an important women’s issue just because women are more likely to judge other women about their sexual choices.  In a patriarchy, women are usually tasked with the job of monitoring female sexuality and enforcing norms of modesty.

In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, for instance, it’s often the women who do all the work of setting up the cutting, guiding the girl through it, and often doing the cutting themselves.  That hardly means female genital mutilation is automatically feminist.  It just requires that we have a more nuanced view of how oppression works.  Enforcing modesty norms on women is dreary scut work, because by definition it’s anti-fun and anti-pleasure.  In a patriarchy, women take on the scut work.  We do housework so men’s time is freed up to do more “soul-affirming” work.  We’re more likely to do assistant work so men can do the work that gets them all the credit.  And when it comes to sex, women are tasked with the job of pushing prudery.  Men have the privilege of not having to worry about these sorts of things to nearly the same degree.

It’s not just on abortion. In all sorts of avenues, women do the hard work of punishing and controlling female sexuality. David J. Ley is far too blasé in his assumption that women monitor other women just because, and that men have nothing to do with this.  Most women who take punishing female sexuality very seriously believe this is ultimately about men, which is to say they view it as their responsibility to create a chaste population of women for men to marry.  If women weren’t so dependent on men for status, we would be as free with each other as men are about our sexual choices.

Women are also roped into judging each other’s sexual behavior because we’re led to believe it’s our only realistic source of control.  Being lower status than men, and especially when you’re dependent on a man, means you often have a lot of desire to keep male promiscuity to a minimum, but men are expected not to listen to women or care much what women think about these issues.  Thus, women start putting demands on each other, because we can’t appeal to men.  Which is why you see a culture where the “other woman” is blamed more than the cheating man for infidelity.  Or you see women like Susan Walsh arguing that other women have a responsibility not to have sex when we want with who we want, because that means that fewer men will have to pony up wedding rings in order to get laid.

Of course, if women don’t have to rely on men for social status and economic survival, then the power balance shifts, and women can start making demands directly of men.  It’s a lot easier, for instance, to demand monogamy directly from your husband if you can leave him without being destitute.  Creating a world where women have equality and men have to share responsibilities for sex and family life is the goal of feminism, and more sexual liberation is the result.  Indeed, I would say that the reason that only half of women polled take should an old-fashioned view on abortion (which is a symbolic stand-in for female immodesty) shows how far we’ve come already.

The numbers of women who feel that their only form of control over their lives is to exert control over other women is declining.  Now that we have ways of attaining economic independence and social status that don’t involve getting and staying married, we have less of a need to create a protectionist racket over female sexuality where women who break the rules are treated like scabs breaking a strike.  Now that we have powers outside of the power to say no to sex and to force other women to say no to sex, there’s simply less need to deprive ourselves or judge others.  And the less that men have complete dominance over our lives, the less reason we have to try like mad to control the one thing we’ve been given to control, which is female sexuality.