If there’s one thing that’s driven me nuts about growing up female, it’s being forced to contend with double-standards when it comes to the expression of our sexuality. This is no small matter either, and we all still have a long ways to go in coming to terms with why such attitudes persist. And such mindsets aren’t limited to men — women themselves are frequently the harshest critics of other women and their life choices. On the topic of women’s sexuality, the attitudes run so deep throughout various cultures that it’s oftentimes accepted as simply being the way of the world, as if indicative of some sort of natural law that dictates women should be condemned when behaving in sexual ways tolerated in men.
As we all know, there’s a long tradition dating back a few thousand years where such attitudes are not only deemed acceptable but also proved lethal toward women judged to be “whores” and major sinners by others in society. The biblical scriptures handed down by Abrahamic religions paved the way for the European Inquisition of the Dark and Middle Ages and for “witch trials” where condemned women were burnt alive or drowned or stoned to death, and despite more disdain shown today toward treating women with such harsh direct consequences based on mere accusations, the legacy still remains. We hear it in the arguments made against female victims of violence and rape, playing up women’s responsibility in luring such mistreatment based on our manner of dress or our reputations. And we hear it still in the attitudes expressed against prostitutes, it being common to dismiss their suffering as if that’s just how it goes when you play the game, as if exchanging sex for money is the lowest act one can opt for and no respect is worthy of such individuals.
What is it about the “promiscuous” woman that raises our ire and sparks our indignation? And why does this reaction typically differ so dramatically between the hyper-sexual woman versus the hyper-sexual man? When a man misbehaves and cheats on his partner and engages in sex with any number of women, it really isn’t all that uncommon for people to snicker and be willing to sweep it under the rug. Or if they they do take issue with his behavior, how often do people call for the man to be socially ostracized and tossed out to live a lonely life of rejection and pain? How many of us think it’s fair that these men in question be required to step down from their professional posts, even if their sexual escapades directly conflicted with their positions? Ted Haggard comes to mind, and he’s back at it once again, working his way toward the spotlight once more. Former president Bill Clinton is another notable example of how apparently humorous and defensible a man’s catting around can look to others. Or take JFK for instance — he was widely considered a playboy, and yet people still reflect fondly on his memory. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was exposed for sleeping around on Coretta, and while we may take this into consideration when evaluating his overall character, it’s not a blemish so bad as to take away from his ultimate message or the respect we continue to pay to his legacy.
But not so running the other direction. The women Bill Clinton messed around with were the ones vilified. JFK’s transgressions involving Marilyn Monroe led to her being the one remembered by posterity as being a slut (and how many are concerned about JFK’s role in her death?). The gay male prostitute Ted Haggard paid to spend time with is the one whose life and career aspirations were shattered. Some may look upon these men with disdain and shake our heads, and we may call them out as hypocrites, but there still remains a difference in the degree to which it bothers us for some reason. We are better able to overlook these ‘misgivings’ on the part of prominent men, dismissing these as problems to be worked out within their marriages and communities, arguing that these ‘moral failings’ shouldn’t overshadow their real accomplishments. Okay. Fine. But why isn’t that same reasonable tone extended to women guilty of similar behavior?
When a woman cheats on a man, we collectively make it our business to bash her, to call her a whore without even knowing what circumstances led up to her decisions, going so far as to also accuse her of being a bad mother in some instances due to her unfaithfulness. When a woman is found out to have worked as a prostitute once upon a time, even if several decades ago, we tend to deem her as unfit to serve in a public office or to work around children (one recent example was a woman running for mayor in Vicksburg, MS, who is being raked over the coals for long ago working in a Nevada brothel). Once you’ve been branded a “whore,” it’s very hard, if not impossible, to live down such a reputation as a woman, no matter what accomplishments there are to your credit. The accusation tarnishes how people look upon you and it affects the way they feel justified in treating you. If you are walking around with the reputation of being a whore, people feel free to tell you your business and to make unwarranted comments to you and about you out in public, even perfect strangers. When a man looks upon you as “nothing but a whore,” he may feel free to treat you in ways he wouldn’t treat a “respectable lady,” such as forcing sex on you (because who’s going to believe a whore anyway?) or being more physically threatening toward you or speaking to you as if you don’t have a soul to damage. It’s not uncommon, and I know what I speak of here.
When you are deemed to be a whore, it sends a message to others that you are of lesser value than them, that your feelings don’t matter as much, that you’re put here on this planet to put up with other people’s shit and that that is just the way it goes. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have let yourself be labeled a whore in the first place, right? Should’ve kept your legs closed, they like to say, even if you received the reputation through no fault of your own, as was once upon a time the case for women who fell victim to rape (and still is the case in Muslim cultures). Because she had been raped, it reduced her social market value in the eyes of others, causing her to be seen as unworthy of marriage — and all for winding up a victim to someone else capable of overpowering her.
But nowadays it’s more an issue of promiscuity where a woman engages in sexual behavior with various partners. I hear all the time how people speak of women like this as not being marriage material, despite the very men claiming this having had their share of sexual partners as well. They speak of her calming down in her 30s and no one wanting her “nasty ass” by that point. Why? I don’t know why. It’s assumed this comes back to territoriality and disparities between the genders/sexes. Are there reasons for why promiscuity may be a problem for women more so than for men? Perhaps when it comes down to creating children, but both sexes obviously play a role in this. And what about when it’s a situation where no children are involved? That doesn’t seem to lighten the stigma placed on sexually-active women, though arguably in these scenarios there are no innocents being affected. So why then? Why do we choose to chastise and treat with disgust women who rule their own bodies and walk to the beat of their own drums? Why is a woman’s sexual agency viewed so narrowly, as if a woman who doesn’t adhere to prescribed social norms should be left out in the cold and banished from decent society? And even if the men she’s having sex with are part of that so-called decent society.
One reason I believe why this is is that society doesn’t like to look upon the whore and see her as a product of the society itself and of men’s will. People don’t seem willing to acknowledge the background that may lead a woman down that path, such as early sexualization by peers or adults. People know that these women are desired by men, hence why men keep getting caught cheating on their wives with them, and yet we shift the blame onto the women primarily, denigrating them as temptresses, unwittingly providing men with an excuse for their behavior as a result. It seems to me we have so little pity or understanding for the sexual woman because something in that worries us, something makes us deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps we can smell that times are changing and these women remain tethered to a point in history that predates the patriarchal era and that aims to be part of its undoing. I also believe people find it easier to blame sexual women than to take a long, hard look at themselves and their loved ones and at society as a whole — heck, to take a look at humanity at its core, at each individual’s potential for good and evil and how that shakes out based, in part, on the environments we’re raised within and how spirited we happen to be.
There must be something very scary indeed about the sexual woman that we would feel so strongly against her that we may sneer at news of her experiencing misfortune and that some may go so far as to attempt to break her body and mind. Why? What is so threatening and so unsettling about the so-called whore that we would rather she be dead or carted off to prison or made to behave in a way more pleasing to our sensibilities? Because it doesn’t make much sense that we can simultaneously hold such strong opinions yet create so much demand for her existence. Men desire her body, yet don’t wish to love her mind, as if the only acceptable approach requires compartmentalization. Why? What is so incredibly difficult about recognizing the full humanity of women who behave in ways similar to many men, yet who most definitely are not men nor wish to be, but rather are men’s corollaries, complementaries, and even rivals. It does seem that this is pointing back to mankind being unwilling to confront their female equivalents, preferring instead women who behave as if pets, domesticated and trained to be loyal companions who behave as they’re instructed by decent society (at least in terms of keeping up appearances), lest they be punished and cast out. And men are heavily encouraged to take this view by women who take issue with and aim to compete with unabashedly sexual women.
But not all women can or will take the yoke, you must understand. And for those we reserve one of the meanest insults: just a whore. The lowest of the low, so some prefer to think.
**Update 5/25/13: Coming back on here to edit this piece a bit, a recurring thought struck me about just how much of this does boil down to competition among women. Not to downplay men’s involvement, but one reason I believe supposedly decent women tend to resent more sexually-interactive women is due to the threat of extramarital sex undermining the wife’s power to negotiate with her husband through the manipulative denial or promise of sex in exchange for what she wants. See, whores throw a monkey wrench into that gameplan, and to an extent I can understand those women’s frustration, because relationships do involve bargaining and incentives at times. And the older a woman gets, the more difficult it is for her to compete against a younger, more sexually adventurous woman. It does come across as quite unfair, but the focus is being placed on women out in society rather than on the men we’re in supposedly committed relationships with. While I understand we live in a pornish culture with sex broadcast everywhere to where we’re all affected whether we want to be or not, and that is a big problem all unto itself, and I see women selling their souls in vying for attention through the exploitation of our sex appeal, and marriages are in big trouble today and monogamy is going out the window — all of that’s true and all of it’s posing special challenges to us today. But at the core of this matter, and it’s certainly not a new concern, is that women fear losing their power if the men in their lives have access to other sexual options that satiate him.
Men are then encouraged to embrace a divide between the women they love versus the women they have sex with, and to deem the latter as being appreciated on a purely physical level, as being objects of sorts, a toy or sexual prop. But not a full-fledged person, not through and through, because he doesn’t want to be concerned with her feelings and her needs outside of the bedroom, because that’s not what her purpose in his life is supposed to be about. It’s like he’s wanting to use her and his wife or girlfriend is wanting to use her too, because both wish to lay the blame with her, and both want to reduce her down and insult her and encourage others to do the same. It’s like both are looking for a scapegoat, albeit for somewhat different reasons and serving their separate agendas. Pretty twisted when you look at it that way.
And what does the sexually-seeking woman get out of all of this? Sex, which hopefully is at least worthwhile. Maybe money or gifts if men’s desire for her is great enough. Opportunities to observe how many men willingly and boldly attempt to initiate a tryst, even going so far as to openly admit they are indeed aiming to sleep around on a spouse or girlfriend, only to later learn how many will then throw her under the bus and claim it was all her fault and doing, crying that the wicked woman lured him, took advantage of him, seduced him — he, a mere man, incapable of controlling himself when faced with sexual temptation. Later, the men in question will make promises to never again stray and fall prey to the “evil” that is another women — that is until a few months go by and the dust has settled and he’s no longer living in the doghouse and he’s been granted forgiveness from his lover. Then it’s back to “game on!” Right? Often enough, yes, that’s the way it goes.
She may also get to glimpse the underbelly of society in all of its perverted glory and to find out that a lot of people differ dramatically behind closed doors from their public personas.
May also wind up with a number of enemies, female ones in particular.
Experiences. Notches on a belt or bedpost.
Anything I’m leaving out here?