Sex and Society in 2500 Words

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Trigger warning, for rape and sexual assault.

Based on the comments from last week’s columns, the advent of the Queer/Trans Conference, and the general fuckwittage that has been politics and women’s issues recently, I thought that it would be a good idea to write a basic column dissecting general cultural thinking about sex.

Obviously, summarizing societal ideas about sex is not really possible in the length of a Gazette column – if it were, many sociologists, psychologists, and columnists would be out of work. But I’ll try my darnedest to get as much good information as possible stuffed into this tiny literary sausage casing. I’ve put in as many citations as possible so y’all can read further, but I’ve been reading about this stuff for a few years, so I can’t find links for everything.

Many of the problems that we as a culture have surrounding sex and relationships stem from our ideas about gender. I won’t go into immense detail about this, but suffice it to say that though progress has definitely been made since the advent of feminism, gender roles are still rigidly defined. There are still prevalent essentialist arguments that women are more emotional and social, men more aggressive and directed. Some studies show these differences to be nominally true, but it is highly murky how much of this dichotomy is due to biology versus socialization. It’s documented that people treat male and female children differently starting from the second they are told the gender of the baby, emphasizing and encouraging different traits and behaviors between the sexes.

For women, much of this rhetoric has to do with appearance. While men have body pressures, they in no way compare to the barrage of physical requirements placed on women. Women are judged on our looks more than anything else. Read or watch any interview with a famous woman, from Hillary Clinton to Keira Knightley to Jane Goodall, and her appearance will be brought up at least once. Now read an interview with Ben Bernanke or John Boehner. Due to the amount of makeup/plastic surgery/exercise available, women who aren’t deemed attractive enough are seen as lazy (check out Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth).

And, of course, women’s appearances are seen as public property – able to be remarked on by anyone, at any time. A few weeks ago, I was having a pretty standard conversation with a friend about the pitfalls of bra shopping, and happened to mention my bra size. A stranger turned around from his own conversation and said, “Wow, congratulations.” When we looked at him blankly, he responded, “On your boobs. That’s a great size.” Is this a huge deal? Probably not, it could have been worse. But women hear comments like this (or the opposite) every day. This guy didn’t comment on my friend’s sewing accomplishments or my seminar reading, our other topics of conversation, but he felt it was perfectly acceptable to commend me for the fact that I have genes that gave me D cups.

Another area where these gender roles have been resistant to change is in family structure. Actual family planning decisions have continued to change and diversify over the years (which is a GOOD thing), yet it is still expected that heterosexual relationships will result in a nuclear family of marriage and children. Any desires that fall outside of this realm – from not wanting children to wanting children without having a partner – are judged continuously.

“Family values” relate to gay relationships and individuals in plenty of truly stupid ways, and things are even worse for transgendered or gender non-conforming individuals. There is a pervasive lack of understanding about what these terms actually mean, in theory and in practice, and like most things that the public doesn’t understand, they fear it and like to pretend that it just doesn’t exist until confronted with it directly. I went to a pretty progressive high school with very extensive and gay-positive sex education, and even there trans issues were never mentioned once. This needs to change immediately. As more individuals vocalize their feelings of alienation within the strict gender binary, it will become harder for the public to ignore, and without good education, it’s likely that tensions and violence will ensue. As is, 90% of transgender youth report feeling unsafe at school due to their gender expression, 74% are routinely sexually harassed, 55% have been physically attacked, and over 33% have attempted suicide. I’m not willing to let those statistics increase.

The gender binary plays out in sexual norms as well. I’m sure all of us have heard the bullshit pseudoscience biological imperative argument that men use sex to “spread seed everywhere” and impregnate as many females as possible, while women use sex for emotional connection to “try to convince their men to stay and help them raise the little ones.” This model is insulting to everyone, and it’s still widely used. I’ve actually heard it in Psych 1.

It shames women who enjoy sex on a physical level or with more than one partner. It degrades men who want relationships as “not manly” and gives male douchebags a built-in excuse to cheat (“It wasn’t me, baby! I couldn’t help it! It’s in my genes!). In a homosexual context, it has lead to the stereotypes that gay males again just want casual sex continuously, and those terrible jokes about the lesbian second date accessory being a moving van.

These issues are coming to the surface in politics now with the fight for Planned Parenthood funding and the right-wing war on reproductive rights. Depending on which study you read, the family planning, sex education, and birth control options that Planned Parenthood provides prevent 70 to 85 thousand additional abortions a year. Still, because they are one of the few organizations that dare to offer the service at all, we are threatening an institution that provides extensive medical services to underserved, primarily lower-class groups. Only about 3% of PP funding goes to abortions, and that percentage comes from private donations, not federal funding.

Much of the language of the anti-choice debate is based on the assumption that women are not aware of the weight of the decision that they are making. The rhetoric on both sides circles around, “It’s a baby!” “It’s not a baby!” “Other options!” “Our bodies, our choice!” This argument misses the point (besides the our bodies part). The fact of the matter is that abortion rates don’t actually change when abortion is made illegal, but desperate women instead seek unsanitary and unsafe ways to achieve it, resulting in approximately 70,000 women’s deaths a year (and 70,000 fetuses, if you’re looking at it that way).

We at Swarthmore like to think that we’re above and away from all of this, but we’re definitively not. On the abortion debate, the Phoenix published a truly spectacular piece of mansplaining last semester in which the columnist asserts that “Opposing abortion is the only real moral choice” and the only reason he gives, besides knowing what the procedure is… well, he doesn’t give one, except for when he believes life starts, which is scientifically murky at best.

On a more basic and less inflammatory level, the prude/slut dichotomy is alive and well on this campus. Once, I passed the same guy 4 or 5 times during the course of a Sharples meal, and every single time I passed him he was saying the word slut about one girl or another. Slut and prude are particularly gendered terms that apply only to women and equate a woman’s value to her sexual experience – or usually perceived sexual experience. While sometimes these terms can be attached to an instance where someone either accepted or turned down sexual advances, often they’re just based on value judgments of visual assessment.

These terms are used by men and women alike to create a power dynamic – anyone labeled a prude or slut is shamed and given less value than those around her, but the fact of the matter is it’s totally arbitrary. I’ve been called a prude, a slut, a scarlet woman, a goodie two-shoes, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s just a temporary bullying technique for the accuser to feel momentarily good about themselves by making someone else feel bad.

And of course, all of these factors come to a head in rape culture. I fell like the best way to explain rape culture, so you can really feel how much it pervades us, is to give a string of examples. Recently in Cleveland, Texas, an 11 year old girl was gang raped by eighteen men ranging in age from 27 to middle schoolers. The New York Times article covering the issue spoke about the tragic effects of this event on the town and on the poor boys who will have to live with their actions and rarely even mentions the victim except to insinuate that her assault was her fault because she dressed maturely and was not with her mother at the time of the rape. This article has not been taken down, and only a half-assed apology has been released, because this is the culture that we live in.

The education around rape is all focused on how women, as the most prevalent victims, can try to prevent being raped, but we never tell men (or anyone) not to rape. Any rape that actually occurs becomes a case of what the victim did that put them in the position to become a victim. Is he gay? Transgender? Has she had sex before? Was he drunk? Was she alone? If I get drunk and throw up on myself, that is my fault and I deal with the consequences. But if I get drunk and someone rapes me, that is the fault of the person who rapes me.

They also keep creating more qualifiers for rape – date rape, acquaintance rape, grey rape (when one or more persons involved was compromised and the situation is therefore ‘ambiguous’), spousal rape, and the new one that the Republican House is pushing for: forcible rape (using excessive violence and apparent damage to the victim’s body), creating a hierarchy of rape cases. This cannot be said enough: there is one thing that makes something rape. It is sexual activity without consent. It doesn’t matter whether the rapist is a stranger in an alley with a gun, or a significant other who isn’t taking no for an answer.

The statistics surrounding rape are even more alarming. In a study conducted by Margo Paine, Ph.D., 8% of college men have either attempted or successfully raped. 30% say that they would rape if they could get away with it and when the wording of the question was changed to “force a woman to have sex,” the percentage jumped to 58%. Additionally, almost 85% argued that “some women look like they are just asking to be raped.” In another disturbing study (also done on college men, though this one was not heteronormative), of the men who had committed acts that qualified as rape (see above), only 20% believed that they had raped someone. These studies become even more disturbing when we add in the fact that due to unreported rapes and the particular way the justice system handles rape cases, 15 out of 16 rapists walk free.

While women are most likely to be raped and rapists are most likely to be men, assaults that don’t fit this framework are far less likely to be reported. And those rapes that are reported are likely to go through a victim-blaming line of questioning that would be made ludicrous if attempted in the investigation of any other crime. It is ridiculous to imagine an officer asking, “Are you SURE that you didn’t give the alleged thief your purse and forget about it?” or “What were you wearing when your car was stolen?” or “Think of the impact that prosecution would have on your arsonist’s life.” Yet their equivalents are asked of rape victims every day. There are more disturbing statistics surrounding rapists, victims, ramifications and more on the RAINN website.

These studies are sickening, especially given how small a percentage of the population they include and given that it is not the profile of a “typical” rapist (the average age for a rapist is 31), but just as sickening is the casual way that society generally handles rape. Rape storylines are commonly used in TV shows to boost ratings during sweeps (I’m looking at you, Private Practice) or posed and than dismissed for not being “rapey” enough (Degrassi – in this example, the female victim was assaulted by a former partner, but eventually stopped saying no to his advances and remained silent).

On a more local level, when asked about one of his exams recently, a friend of mine said, “I raped it. Just bent it over the table and took it from behind,” finding humor and taking power in the rapist position. Study after study has shown that jokes like this are severely harmful because they desensitize us to the concept of rape and frame it as something casual and humorous. Considering that you can never know the experience of your audience, you could be traumatizing a survivor, and are likely pissing off someone who doesn’t admire your classless attempt at humor.

And, of course, we can always look at the handling of rape and public figures. My personal favorites are Roman Polanski and Ben Roethlisberger. Roman Polanski has admitted to raping a 13 year old, yet has thumbed his nose at the authorities by avoiding the grasp of the criminal justice system. His films have continued to make millions, and significant numbers still rally for his freedom for a variety of reasons from “He’s had a really hard life” to “He’s a grandfather. He can’t be a predator.” There is no valid excuse for sexually assaulting another human being. If he had committed murder instead of rape, this argument wouldn’t exist.

Ben Roethlisberger has not been convicted, but the evidence suggesting that he has assaulted at least three women is plentiful. Most of his supporters don’t even try to deny that he has committed these rapes, but instead usually argue that he’s a great football player. I don’t care if he can move the fucking ball with his mind. This is not an excuse to sexually assault another human being, especially in the blasé way that he has done so. In one of his cases, he brought his victim into a bathroom where his bodyguard prevented her friends from stopping the crime. This is even more damning when you compare his punishment with Michael Vick’s. While Vick’s crimes were reprehensible, he was suspended from the NFL, incarcerated, went through counseling, and publicly lost his sponsors. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games. Thanks, America, for showing all of us that you care more about dogs than rape victims. It’s truly heartwarming.

This all needs to stop yesterday. The only way that these sickening standards will change is if we all work against them on a personal level. We need to change the way that we as individuals think about and react with the ideas of gender, sex, and rape. And we have to educate those around us. It’s an exhausting process, but it needs to be done.

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