Virgin/Whore Revisited

In the humanities in the Western world, there exists a dichotomy between two archetypes of women that stems from Catholicism and Christianity in general – the dichotomy between the virgin and the whore. At its most literal level, this refers to perceiving women as pure and untainted by sex (or at least sex outside of marriage), or as a woman who engages in her bodily acts with multiple men for money or for pleasure outside of marriage. One may come across a variant of this, virgin/Madonna/whore, where the middle persona represents a mother, but a sexless mother whose conception was a divine miracle, and not something carnal of the flesh. Feminists and others have long decried this dichotomy as sexist, patriarchal, and denying of a woman’s right to pleasure.

Others might argue that women’s sexual freedom – or anybody’s for that matter – is a recent phenomenon, born out of Enlightenment philosophies of individualism and developments in technology that led to birth control. In American culture, we still hold certain expectations and even double standards for women. Traditional cultures still largely espouse this view, even ones that are not Christian, as we have seen with the tragic death of Pakistani social media star and television personality Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in an “honor killing” to avenge the shameful behavior she exhibited in public and the dishonor she brought upon her family. No woman should be punished or harmed for expressing her sexuality or sensuality, nor should she ever be blamed for rape.

But is there any truth to this dichotomy? Are there “good” and “bad” women? Among women in America, do we not sort of classify or look down at certain types of women, though we might be reluctant to admit it?

In modern, secular America, generally speaking, we do not dichotomize women based on sexuality. Classifying a woman according to whether or not she is a virgin is passé. So by this belief, the entire argument is rendered useless. But – perhaps there is another way to look at sexuality and women that comes from a woman’s point of view and not from a man’s or patriarchal one.

As a friend put it, before the sexual revolution, women felt they had to say no to sex, and after the revolution, they felt they had to say yes. Anyone who is very aware of millennial and modern hookup culture knows that women are put in a very difficult position. But there are many women who make bad choices, and perhaps that is the root of the problem. Our sexual culture allows a woman to enjoy a sexual life like a man, but without being treated with the respect previously accorded to a woman. Given that men have not yet, as a whole, worked on redefining the roles vis-à-vis how women’s have changed over the last few decades, we still have a lot of problems with how women are perceived and treated. Much of the uproar over the “French open letter” (where dozens of women, including Catherine Deneuve, objected to the #MeToo movement) illustrates both the problems women have in dealing with men, as well as the differences among women. The French letter seemed to disregard The French letter seemed to disregard the fact that the #MeToo women enjoy their sensuality and attention from men, just not when coupled with an abuse of power as it was in the situations Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and countless unnamed men in the world today.

I would like to suggest what defines the modern “dichotomy” in women is self-esteem. A sense of self-worth and acting from a place of strength and dignity, rather than from outside motives. Notice that I did not define this as acting independently from men. As I have frequently written, I believe a large part of the failure of the feminist movement born in the 60s and 70s was its failure to view women in relation to men, and thereby improve the dynamics between genders.

Any woman with a sense of self-worth is proud of her choices in expressing – or not expressing – her sexuality and sensuality in public. A woman with a sense of self-worth is proud to look like a woman, proud to be who she is, be very feminine if she chooses, or not. Her sexual pleasure comes from a place of personal desire, not societal expectations. She will not be treated badly by a man, and if she is, she will refuse to put up with it. (The #MeToo movement has been a wonderful regenesis of women who are proud of their womanhood and sensuality, but very willing to set boundaries). A woman with self-esteem will not allow herself to fall victim to peer pressure and alcohol, and will not allow herself to get in situations that can potentially result in harm. This type of woman will do everything she can to not allow herself to become a victim, but she will rush to the defense of any woman who is victimized.

If we set this as a new standard, we can see that there will be a wide variety of types of women, not just the virgins/Madonnas on one end of the scale. This includes the Qandeel Baloches but also the women who wear their hijabs proudly and fashionably as they push their strollers. This includes the brilliantly accomplished Hillary Clintons as well as the brilliantly accomplished Amal Clooneys, who are proud to be style icons. This includes women from all walks of life, be it doctors and other professionals, as well as minivan-driving moms in small-town Saline, Michigan. This includes women around the world, of all ages, shapes, sizes, classes, professions, and orientations.

So who, among us, do we (guiltily and wrongly) look down upon? Women who don’t operate from a sense of dignity. We see them on Friday and Saturday nights – the (sorority) girls who are tarted up in disgustingly revealing clothing to get drunk at bars or (frat) parties, not knowing who they are waking up with. Women who have given the sexual revolution a bad name by going wild and acting badly. The “Barbie doll” types of all ethnicities in Southern California or wealthy suburbs everywhere, who must conform to a look — blonde highlighted, over glossed, over perfumed, overdone – who even go so far as to make radical alterations on their bodies to fit in. The women who stick themselves in bad relationships, who use men just to get pregnant, or even those who hate men. The “easy women” who are happy being a trophy wife to a man who is unable or unwilling to grow up, and would rather trade his first wife in for a new model. Women from traditional cultures who refuse to speak up for their needs in their marriage, perpetuating the cycle of bad behavior from men who feel they are entitled to do whatever they want and not be a good husband. Women who are Puritans, who cannot enjoy their femininity, who act like men. (Many people saw the undoing of Hillary Clinton as the result of this, however wrong and sexist as it may have been.) Women who are strong, but still buy into the hookup culture, who still feel they have to say yes. Fashion victims. Vogue editor Anna Wintour has really done very badly toward her own sex, as have the others who support the destructive aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. Women who do not speak up when sexist things are said.

Is it wrong for women to judge other women? Yes, perhaps it really is. But I suppose it is an inevitable part of our behavior as women, because we are so closely bonded by nature and wired to be collective. Maybe it is inherent in any group for people to look critically at its members. But we cannot make social progress unless we first look at the weakest links, so to speak. And most importantly, we must first look within, look at ourselves, and see where we need to improve in progress before we criticize others. That is the ultimate sign of a woman with inner strength and dignity.

In Belated Honor of International Women’s Day

This is to honor all the women in the world – the nearly 4 billion of us. Simone de Beauvoir’s moniker of “the second sex” still sadly holds true today. Women suffer from poverty, gender discrimination, lack of access to appropriate healthcare, lack of resources for their children, domestic violence – the list goes on. And one must simply ask, Why? Why are women the recipients of so much negativity when they do so much? Women in developing countries especially face a heavy burden, being assigned tasks such as fetching water from miles away, being married off too young before they can finish their education, cruel stigmas such as being “impure” during menstruation, not to mention female genital mutilation and other horrors. We have seen the example of the unspeakable violence committed against the teenaged Malala Yousafzai – but also how she rose up against it, fought for her life and the lives of other girls and young women, and won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

In developed and moderately developed countries, we still see problems such as salary discrepancies, lack of maternity leave, a glass ceiling for women in the higher echelons of the work world, and unrealistic body images. Across the world, we see a common denominator of sexual harassment and women not being treated as equals, period.

We live in turbulent times when it comes to being a woman. The #MeToo movement, the president of the most powerful country in the world a serious misogynist and cheater, pay inequality, the ill-treatment of women in Silicon Valley, school kidnappings in Nigeria – the list goes on. But it is also exciting, because the discussion and changes that are coming out of these turbulent issues with women and gender are leading us toward progress. Serena Williams fighting back about her post-pregnancy seeding in the tennis world, women trying to gain more elected positions, Hollywood becoming more inclusive (thanks, Frances McDormand) are just some examples of how women are fighting back and trying to take their power. We have borne the consequences of the American feminist movement from the 60s and 70s, which focused too heavily on the body and the physical (which are important, but it became the main goal) rather than collective needs of women as a whole and actual policies that benefit women. I feel we are finally coming back to an inclusive feminist movement that addresses the basic needs of every woman, regardless of her age, class, or orientation.

In this process, as I have always advocated, we need male allies. Feminism cannot be feminism without men, and men cannot have any sort of movement without women; a gender studies perspective is a better way of framing the discussion rather than just feminism. Men are not all the enemy, and sometimes some women contribute to the problem as well. Equality, of course, may not take the same shape in every culture. Men and women are not the same, despite what many feminists believe, but this does not advocate putting women in a subordinate position to men. We need to ask ourselves what women’s’ needs are, financially, biologically, emotionally, and build our society and policies around that.

There seems to be a big gap or leap from how girls are raised to be strong and independent in childhood, but then suffer once they hit adulthood. Disney and all the image makers have been very conscientious as of late as to what messages they are sending to girls and young women; however, the images of women in positive role models seem to decline once they hit their 20s. We have to ask what structural factors are working against women. In earlier waves of feminism, such as that from the 60s and 70s, there seems to have been a bias against motherhood and women’s reproductive cycles, a denial of biology as Camille Paglia might say. This forced women to fit into a very male-oriented social paradigm. But we see now this does not work. We need to take into account women’s biology, and women need to take ownership of their reproductive power whether or not they have children. We need to encourage women to feel there is nothing wrong with getting married or being a mother, that a lifetime romantic relationship is indeed valuable and something that needs work.

As we are making structural changes in society, we also need to make our own efforts on an individual level. Too many women – even educated, independent women – do not empower themselves. This can be as simple as calling out bad behavior on a man’s part, or not enabling it. It can also be as simple as taking ownership of one’s femininity, something that is often taboo to say in educated circles. We are not men, so why shouldn’t we enjoy not being men?!

At the bottom of it all, it is still very hard to be an intelligent woman. A woman with a brain is alternately mocked, put down, lauded, a source of puzzlement, and more. Too many women of letters have struggled to make themselves heard and to be respected for what they know, or they have struggled with their womanhood while trying to develop a career in a man’s world. While it is not always possible for a woman to “have it all,” it is possible for a woman to “be it all”: she can embrace all aspects of herself and not see them in opposition to each other. This multi-faceted complexity we possess is the most precious thing about being a woman, and who would want it any other way?

Why American Feminism Has Failed

Much of my work on The Women of Letters has focused on bringing a cross-cultural/international perspective to American culture and institutions. It is time to turn our attention to American feminism and to see why, despite the United States being the most powerful country in the world and a leading developed nation, certain markers of progress for women still lag behind other developed nations.

Mine was the first American generation that was equal by law in terms of race and gender. I grew up feeling strong and capable of anything, unhindered by gender. However, at Stanford, I found that the definition of “feminist” was something entirely foreign to my own conception of feminism. I felt very alienated by the women who called themselves feminists, found their conception of feminism and women’s rights extremely militant and divisive. Once I entered the “real world,” I indeed encountered sexism on a concrete level that was often subtle and not easy to prove. I also saw how difficult it was for working women, especially married mothers, to balance career and family, to be able to afford childcare and to take time off from their jobs. I saw how this affected women across class and race, and how the law and health care system did not address women’s needs adequately. A woman’s co-pay to see a gynecologist, who is wrongly considered a “specialist,” costs more than a visit to a primary care physician.

The feminists of the 60’s and 70’s who laid the groundwork for my generation focused on the wrong perspectives or took the wrong approaches. Some academic feminists have contributed to the problem as well, focusing on esoterica and frivolity. Here are some reasons why I believe American feminism has not achieved enough:

-American feminism has focused on sexuality rather than economics. The Nordic countries have the lowest rates of economic inequality and the best policies for maternity leave, and rank highest on various global indices for “best countries for women.” American women can read about the best sex positions in Cosmo, enjoy the antics of “Sex and the City,” debate the use of the word “history” instead of “herstory” (which is ridiculous, as it reveals an ignorance of Latin etymology), sign petitions about being proud to have an abortion (is it really a source of pride, when it shows the failure of effective birth control for women?), go to endless performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” but in the end, a woman will have to put her baby in daycare at six weeks, if she can even afford it, because women are not paid as much as men. How is this progress?

If we use our rather short-sighted American criteria as for what is “progressive” for women (which usually means sexual freedom), then popular opinion has it that Nordic women are very open in their sexuality and sexually fulfilled (one study cited in “The Economist” showed that Finnish women are the most “promiscuous” in the world, having had the most number of sexual partners). Based on this simplistic American criterion, we would find that the country that is rated best for women on numerous indices, Iceland, had a lesbian prime minister. But this is overlooking the key point–if we attend to a woman’s economic needs, then she will be free to be whoever she is sexually. We have focused too much on sex, and now a woman can be sexually equal to a man. The problem is, he still won’t call you the next morning, and your insurance might not cover your birth control.

-American feminism has focused too much on individualism. We see individual women who have followed their paths and found success–the Hillary Clintons, Sheryl Sandbergs, Alice Walkers, Meryl Streeps of America have all been extraordinary women in their respective fields. Women like Gloria Steinem have been idolized for decades. While I certainly admire Ms. Steinem’s accomplishments, I feel that she and her 1970’s ilk have focused too much on their own positions, which are unlike that of the majority of American women who are concerned with getting good schooling for their kids, getting vacation time, and negotiating with their spouse about who is doing the vacuuming.

The problem comes because it raises the issue of marriage as the norm for society. Feminists who have opposed marriage have cited that it is oppressive as an institution, and that individual freedom is the antidote. We are in an era where women are free to make their choices as to their lifestyle and lovers, which is a healthy thing. But again, we have to look at the majority of American women who are wives and mothers, even lesbian couples, or single or married but childless women who help care for children or child relatives. American feminism has refused to see family as the normative unit, all under the name of “oppression.” How is it oppressive to a non-married woman, who is now free to live as she likes, and her society is able to care for her as well as families? The late Betty Friedan was aware of these things, and NOW was originally founded to help the ordinary woman. Unfortunately, things took a different turn and feminism lost its focus on helping the majority of women. This is not to say that a woman must be married or partnered in order to be whole and fulfilled, that she is any less than a married woman. It is simply saying we need to address the issues that will help as many women as possible.

-American feminism has not included men enough. This relates to the above point–even even women who have no intention of getting married or having children lament the irresponsibility of the modern American male who can’t even commit to a romantic relationship. This is the result of the lack of focus on feminism and its relation to human relationships, be it marriage or motherhood. Men have not been held responsible since women are free to be whomever they want as an individual. Many women say that men are not as “evolved” as they are, while men say that they do not feel like they can “be a man” anymore. We have not reevaluated male gender roles, nor taken their needs into account.

And yet, there still is a lot of deeply-ingrained sexism towards women: out-of-touch male politicians make decisions about women’s reproductive rights, rape and sexual assault are too prevalent on college campuses, and paid maternity leave is very inadequate. We still have a long way to go for institutional change.

-The LGBT community still suffers. While we see sensationalized girl-on-girl action in movies or an openly gay show host on TV, our LGBT friends are dealing with a host of issues: domestic violence among lesbian couples, transgender youth being beaten up, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes. If our society focused on collective welfare that began with taking care of women, I believe that people would be able to accept people who were not heterosexual. Certainly, women who are not straight would certainly accuse society of being “heteronormative.” This is a legitimate criticism. However, once again I cite the Nordic example of having the best cultures for women as well as gays, and also the fact that one of the key psychological issues many LGBT people suffer is being shunned by their families.

It is time that we look at American society as a bit aberrant compared to most other places in the world. It is time we reevaluate our definitions of feminism, our individualism that is both our greatest asset as well as, perhaps, our curse. It is time we truly, deeply respect women.