Scholarship and research might sound boring, but they’re very dynamic and alive— always changing. The presumptions that undergird entire disciplines have shifted over the last few decades due to who is conducting research. For example, because female primatologists have brought new forms of empathy, curiosity, and identification to their studies, the science in this field has improved markedly. We now know much more about the social and sexual behaviors of non-human female primates. We have learned that maternal and sexual strategizing were huge selection pressures in evolution! Female monkeys and apes aren’t just passive players in the game of sex, “being mounted” by males—they’re soliciting copulations, building support networks, evading male control, and much more.
As I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, our society is deeply uncomfortable with female autonomy, especially as expressed through sex. As a result, it has produced a number of narratives to control women and their sex lives. One of the oldest and most effective of these is the purity myth. That is, society’s obsession with female virginity and valuing women based on sexual constraint. In many religiously conservative communities, this is even enforced with pledges and paraphernalia like rings. However, this myth does not only root itself amongst the religiously conservative; its assumptions are shared by the culture at large. But women now more than ever are pushing back against its demands on their lives. A great example of this can be found in the work of Amber Rose. For years Rose has been bashed for her forthright sexuality and has been hounded by her ex Kanye West, who like a petulant teenager claimed he had to “take 30 showers” after their relationship before he could be with another woman. Rather than stoop to her misogynistic critics level, Rose has become an outspoken advocate for women embracing their sexuality, creating an annual SlutWalk that has drawn thousands into the streets to reject a society that shames women for engaging in sex. In pop culture, women who embrace their sexuality have often been cast as femme fatales, dangerous and not to be trusted. For many years, these characters were maligned and ignored, but we now are beginning to see new appreciation for their value as subversions of patriarchal norms. As film critic Abbey Bender recently noted in a viral tweet, these characters have also frequently been sheathed in white—the ultimate symbol of purity. By appropriating symbols of purity culture and mixing them with female ambition, rage, violence, and sexuality, these women rejigger our understandings of power and sex along lines of gender. And as I wrote in the wake of Harvey Weinstein revelations, our embrace of female sexuality is crucial to our healing of wounds caused by seeing women as objects. Screw purity, let women have their “perverse” desires freely and fully.
Names are important. They are used to address and lay claim, and often names become part of our identity and sense of self. And yet, when women marry, they are usually expected to cast all these considerations aside and change their surnames without a fuss. In the West, this legal and cultural norm can be traced back to the Norman conquest, when the practice of “coverture” was proliferated. Under coverture, a husband and wife become one entity in the eyes of the law and society, erasing a wife’s independent identity and rights. This historical foundation has been a powerful constraint for women’s sexual and professional autonomy. Just a few decades ago, as reporting from The Atlantic shows, this philosophy led to women being pulled from welfare for having extramarital sex and being excluded from many professions. And it remains uncommon for this dynamic to run in the opposite direction; it is still exceedingly rare for a man to take his wife’s name, which has much to do with cultural scripts. Or as singer Kylie Minogue once remarked, “Nobody wants to be Mr Minogue. It takes a very strong man to put themselves in that position and I fully appreciate that." In much of the world, the US very much included, a wife’s decision to keep her own name is seen as an emasculation of her husband. Thus a woman’s decision is framed in terms of its consequences for a man. Most can’t seem to muster any empathy for women’s suffering for relinquishing their names—identity erasure, bureaucratic hurdles, and professional penalties. (Worse, some data suggest half of Americans believe it should be legally required that a woman assume her husband’s last name!) Even in places where women do not typically take their husband’s name after marriage, there are still deeply rooted traditions that connect a woman’s value to attachment to a man; if not a husband, then a father. There are a handful of notable outlier nations like Greece and France, where it is actually illegal for a woman to assume her husband’s name (and some where they need not take a familial name at all), but even here regressive norms persist. Men are more likely than women to be known and addressed by their surnames, which often confers authority and respect and deepens gendered inequality. A recent New York Times report showed that at Wimbledon there continues to be a gendered practice of identifying female champions by their husband’s name (even in cases like Billie Jean King’s, where the couple has been long separated). Of a piece with this, earlier this week a mother and daughter were hassled at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport due to a difference of surnames, with the mother being berated by a Customs and Border Patrol agent that she should have taken her husband’s name to confirm maternity. These recent cases highlight the enduring ways that marriage and naming practices are used to constrain and control women. We have a name for this: patriarchy.
Recently I shared (on Twitter) Lauren Evans’s outstanding article for The Establishment on the pernicious perspective embedded in the term “revenge porn.” This commonly used phrase, which has found its way into legal statutes in several countries as well as a handful of US states, refers to the practice of nonconsensually sharing sexually charged photographs of another person. As Evans notes, to categorize this behavior as “revenge” is to legitimate it as a response to a prior wrong. It follows many other modern cultural phenomena in blaming (female) victims for the harms done to them. Evans’s article put me in mind of Asia Argento, who was recently caught up in a mob of blame for the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, who she was dating at the time of his death. Bourdain, a brilliant writer and thinker, was rightfully beloved by all who followed his career and enjoyed joining him on illuminating adventures in Parts Unknown. Despite Bourdain writing a book about his past struggles with suicidal ideation and addressing the issue frequently in interviews, many people were nonetheless quick to accuse Argento for his death. Some called her a “manipulater&user” and a “witch.” Others accused Argento of being “unfathomable” in her deceit—she was photographed with another man in the hours prior to Bourdain's death—and a destroyer of the MeToo movement. Some also suggested prosecution: “What investigators must do is to look deep into [Bourdain’s] communications with her to see what they find and file charges were [sic] needed be.” Predictably blame landed on a woman, and worse still, one accused of being untrue. How little light there is between this and our past. We can hear echoes of Hester Prynne or Salem in the accusations that Argento is a witch. One twitter user called her a "succubus," taking us back to the days of the Malleus Maleficarum. Plus ça change. Female sexual autonomy remains disruptive and destabilizing to the social order, and the penalties women pay, whether Argento or victims of “revenge porn,” are steep. The messages society is sending these women are clear: be quiet, contain yourself, your body is not your own.
Today’s MASSIVE crush on two fearless leaders—Okoye and Rachel Simmons. Have you seen Black Panther? It has broken the box office and inspired people across the US. I haven’t seen my friends this excited—about a movie that is more like a cultural event, and what feels like both the proof of and the possibility of even more meaningful social change--in a long time. Maybe ever. Okoye is inspiring girls and boys alike with her strength, smarts, and proud blackness. What does it mean when women lead unambivalently, without fear of stepping on male egos, without fear of reprisal from the greater male coalition? Okoye does just this. Can the rest of us get there? Rachel Simmons wants to know. The author of trailblazing Odd Girl Out has written another sure-to-be-a-classic for feminists, parents, and everybody else—Enough as She Is. Rachel’s message is that we have to let girls learn to fail and learn to forgive themselves for it if we want them to thrive and to lead. Buy it here—and I’ll see you at Black Panther.