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.

The True Meaning of Misogyny

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani social media star and feminist)

So much gets thrown around these days in terms of what the word misogyny means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as “a hatred of women,” from the Greek misein to hate and gyne woman. Our own cultural connotations of this word in American society vary greatly. Is a man staring at an attractive woman on the street and example of misogyny? Or only when he makes a comment? Is the fact that we do not really encounter a female Mozart when studying European culture and music a sign of misogyny? I would argue that we have to be careful, when defining misogyny, not to negate or deny certain things that are naturally or even inherently masculine, certain things that may be harmless. Also, a male acting in traditionally masculine ways is not necessarily being misogynistic. I, like many women, love chivalry and find it charming when a man opens a door for me, whereas other women may find it demeaning. We need to distinguish between superficial misogyny and genuine, deep-rooted misogyny.

In the first example, a man staring on the street may be acting simply out of his own biology and own masculine nature; while it may be uncomfortable to some women, we have to be careful not to label this as misogynistic in all cases. Same for opening a door –a man may see himself as being a gentleman and doing his duty and a chivalric way. In the second example, we are dealing with a more complex situation. Indeed, our history books and curricula have often neglected women entirely, or minimized their contributions. (Hence the presence of this blog, and its title that seeks to honor women in cultural positions). And needless to say, in earlier centuries, women were not educated to the same level as men, if at all, and female Mozarts may have existed but were instead expected to do needlepoint and then be married off at age 16. But we cannot use our modern standards to evaluate the Canon and earlier eras; to do so would simply be ridiculous and anachronistic. I frequently take issue with modern politically correct scholarship and interpretations of earlier works and time periods, for it shows a deep ignorance of history and a certain shallow Americanism. Sometimes I even have to laugh when the whole issue of calling a woman a “girl” becomes a subject for debate, because some of the most old-fashioned men who call a woman a girl might be the ones who treat her with the most respect as opposed to the politically correct men who call a woman a woman but whose behavior is not respectful.

What, then, does misogyny mean? Because we can’t deny it exists, and on some level, we deal with it every day in America.

I would argue that true misogyny means denying things that are at the very unique essence of what it means to be a woman, things that are particular to our gender. Misogyny, at its deepest, means a denial of female emotion and female energy.

-Interpersonally, probably the worst example of misogyny is a man’s inability to accept and understand a woman’s emotions in a romantic context. Labeling women as “crazy,” or fearing that “she’s going to go out of control” are all ways in which the fundamental nature of a woman, to be emotional in a way that a man cannot be, is quashed and destroyed. Women are taught logic and rational thinking; men are seldom taught how to understand women’s emotions (though we have to understand that biologically there may be a limit to what they can comprehend). But the point is that this imbalance leads to a lot of anger and hostility in relationships. These days, with social media, it is easier for men to hide behind a screen rather than hear, see, and feel what his woman is experiencing.
These days, it seems that the more educated and professional the man is, the less he is able to deal with a woman’s emotions, and would not hesitate to end a relationship. Whereas a less educated man might be able to cope better, perhaps by going out for a beer with his friends and accepting he said something stupid and go back home, accepting to a certain degree that there are certain gender traits and one must accept them.

-Many women may criticize the above, but that proves the next point: women are not allowed to be women in all aspects of life. In order to do well in their careers, too many women have been forced to adopt masculine ways and to stifle their femininity. This is especially prominent in certain fields, such as finance, law, STEM fields, even academia. In order to get ahead, a woman has to play the game. And when our culture dictates that work life consumes most of our day, it becomes difficult for women to relax into their femininity when they are not at work. This has made gender roles difficult for both genders, and many men complain about masculine, controlling women. This is a legitimate complaint, but its origins come from a male-dominated society that has pushed women to be this way.

-Misogyny is patriarchy gone extreme. Notice that I did not say misogyny is patriarchy, but qualified it with an adjective phrase. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can say that there are certain aspects of a patriarchal society that could be beneficial to women–a male who is a provider, who will stay in a relationship, who will be a responsible father, and who will allow a woman to be her feminine self. It can provide a sort of social safety net. However, in too many countries and cultures, including America, this patriarchy can push women into unwanted or undesirable marriages, motherhood, deny them an adequate education or work opportunities, and worst of all, result in domestic violence. The latter is the most tragic example of men trying to maintain their power and values at all costs, but sometimes the cost is death.

-So much is discussed about abortion rights — something that indeed must be kept safe and legal – and birth control, but what about birth rights? If only a woman can give birth, and is capable of that magical creative act, why does our society fundamentally not support that? This is not a liberal-conservative debate, but simply one that asks to honor a woman’s ability to reproduce. Why do so many women opt to have abortions? The first reason is that the birth control has failed (again, a failure of effective birth control for women, and a lack of birth control for men), and so a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. But another reason is that she is not in a culture that supports her pregnancy. Financially, America is a very difficult place to raise a child. Many women may not wish to embrace motherhood, and that is an equally valid choice. But for others, they may want to but find themselves torn between earning a living, pursuing a career that will lead to her earning a living, or abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. Where is the support for these women who want to keep the child?

-And let us not forget the pathetic joke of maternity leave: a Forbes article from April 2016 presents the grim situation of how the U.S. is the worst in terms of maternity leave of developed countries. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave – if you and your workplace meet the criteria – is inhumane. We can’t even think about paternity leave until we get better maternity leave, which is a shame.

-Pressuring women to look a certain way – even unfeminine – in the workplace. Must a female attorney who clerks for a Supreme Court or federal judge be condemned to a lifetime of navy and black suits? Is an investment banker any less qualified if she wears shoes with stripes? Or if a woman wears a pink dress to give a speech when she is running for office, is she relegated to being “cute”? The problem should not be placed on women and their sartorial choices, but on the men who cannot understand them.

These are just some examples of everyday misogyny and a deep lack of appreciation for the female and feminine energy. What many men fail to recognize is that to deny the feminine externally is to also deny the feminine inside them. While men are not wired to be women – thank goodness – and it can be physiologically harmful for them to process emotion at the same level as women, they still need to accept that we all have our masculine and feminine elements within us. In turn, women need to relax into their feminine sides and accept certain elements of masculinity, however unpleasant or strange they may seem. Feminism cannot work without understanding men.

To conclude with a classic joke– isn’t it the ultimate misogyny when a man doesn’t understand that the woman is always right?!