The notion that women’s bodies exist for others is a spectrum. Killing off this sinister idea begins at home.
The past week’s passion play of amped up masculinity and privilege—Kavanaugh’s Yalie frat bro entitlement melding into Lindsey Graham’s southern good old boy BS—was a performance of white male entitlement in crisis. The long and short of it was that Kavanaugh and his ideological foot soldiers were outraged—outraged—that he was being called on to answer questions about sexual violence he had allegedly committed several decades ago.
Consider, for a moment, what it means to be outraged at learning that, if you wanted a position that would sway the ideological and judicial tenor of the country for years to come, you would have to answer questions about whether you had, in fact, assaulted her. Imagine being infuriated by that requirement. Imagine being contemptuous, dismissive, and hostile toward those who were asking you questions about your past conduct toward women. Imagine feeling so contemptuous, in fact, that you turned the questions onto them. “Have you ever blacked out?” Imagine acting as if you were being persecuted unfairly, rather than called to account for what you had or had not done. Imagine asserting over and over, in an explicit dog whistle to men across the country, that you like beer, that you love beer, that you drink beer, that you always drank beer, that you will continue to drink beer—as a way of saying, F*ck you, I have no regrets and will offer no apologies and I will not make the slightest effort to comport myself in a seemly way before this body of senators because you are illegitimate, because no one should be questioning me.
The undergirding of Kavanaugh’s angry attacks and Graham’s performative tantrum is the idea that it doesn’t matter so much what men have done; the real thing is what they have become. And the corollary to that notion is that what happens to women in that process matters less than the fact that the man has come out on top.
Women of America, it’s time to take off your wedding rings. Re-education about female autonomy begins at home. Telling women that their selves and their bodies are things for men is a spectrum. It lives in the space between being married, compulsory monogamy, the wage gap, and getting away with harassment at work, and assault and rape. But wait, what does your wedding ring have to do with it?
What happens when you marry?
You become his, and he yours, ideally, in the companionate model of marriage we believe in here. And yet. What happens on the ground? You take his name, subsuming your identity into his. You might even still be called, in some contexts, Mrs. John Jones, rather than Alice Smith. If you keep your maiden name, things get complicated—letters and packages don’t get delivered, there may be jokes about your independence, people are confused, or people call you by his last name because it’s easier (that’s a code for “it makes more sense”). Small things. Microaggressions against your autonomy. Containment strategies that make it easier to just take his name. And all that it implies about belonging and ownership.
Should you divorce, returning to using your very own last name (actually your father’s), if you took your husband’s, can be hell, as Deborah Copaken wrote about when she attempted the audacious act of getting her previous identity back once her marriage was over. This, too, is a coercive tactic, and not a subtle one.
What else happens when you marry? You put on a ring, in most cases, and so does he. But the asymmetrical nature of your obligations becomes clear when you take your wedding and engagement ring—semaphores that you belong to someone—off. When men remove their wedding rings in our culture and in the popular imagination, it primes them for sexual adventure. And it’s meaningful that they wear no diamond engagement ring, presumed to telegraph with its size not only that a woman is possessed, but the wealth of the man taking possession of her.
What happens when a woman removes her engagement ring and wedding ring? She is likely to feel not a dizzying sense of possibility, but something bad about herself. Go out into the world without that band and that diamond, those semaphores of belonging to a man, and the world feels like a very different place indeed. Instead of a bracing whiff of freedom, you are just as likely to feel the cold wind of being unprotected by alliance with a male. There will be a subtle sense that you are not worthy of male attention, perhaps. That no man wanted you. Depending on where you live, there will be a bump down in your status. You are available, for good and for bad, but unlike men, what you telegraph is that you are unprotected by what the great science writer and theorist of gender Natalie Angier calls the Greater Male Coalition. You are up for grabs, which could be fun, but you are up for grabs nonetheless.
And what about sex? And what about pleasure? Female bodily autonomy is at once the most basic and the most radical version of female autonomy. Sure, we dispensed with head and master laws—which gave men final say on decisions involving joint property without his wife’s consent—in 1979. But marriage is coercive of women in America in other, equally basic and equally objectionable ways. Is your body your own? If it were, if our culture believed that, a man would not dream of raising his hand against you for any reason, including if you had sex with another person. He certainly would not dare to assault you.
Female sexual autonomy, like female autonomy, is under assault. The Greater Male Coalition must die, and the Kavanaugh hearings tell us it is not going down easily. Tell men that your husband doesn’t own you, and that no one does. Because women are not objects for barter or for sale or for possession. Not anymore. Tell them.