Of Claiming Ownership of Women
Now that the “Me-too” movement seems to have about run its course, I think it is important to remind ourselves that powerful men continue to sexually abuse women under their control and have done so as a matter of course throughout recorded history.
To suggest this situation has changed, or is anything new, one would have to be willfully blind and utterly ignorant of history. What is new is that for the first time ever, women as a group, have (in Western countries) enough political and financial clout to actually do something to stop violations they have quite literally endured since the beginning of recorded history.
For at least the last three millennia, in nearly all large complex societies, women have held little to no power over their own person. While there is substantial evidence to suggest that in older and/or smaller and less complex societies women have held higher status, in the past 3,000 years women around the globe have held a very subordinate role. In truth the most common relationship between men and women has been that of master and servant. Worse yet, to this day many women across the globe are quite literally the property of their husband or father. Today, we in the US recoil in horror at that idea, yet even in our country, within the last century women have been denied the most basic legal rights.
Until very recently almost all large societies across the globe simply took the idea that women are the legal property of the man in their life as the normal and “God ordained” natural order. The belief that a woman should cede control of her body to the most powerful man in her life is alive and well. For a married woman, that is her husband and if she is not married her father, brother or other family member take on that role. To this day, in conservative communities across the globe, this power is most often manifest by those men claiming the power over who a woman can see, talk to or marry. Also implicit, though not expressly stated, is that the most powerful men in a women’s life have the natural right to use her body for sexual gratification should they desire it.
Historically nearly all cultures across the globe have been predicated on the concept that men hold power over women by right. The only protection most women could claim was that a violation of her body by a stranger was a direct affront to the men in her life. The Mosaic law is typical of the way women were viewed up until very recently. It is quite clear on this point. Sexual abuse was a property crime against the woman's husband or father, not against the woman herself. In nearly all ancient societies there were two kinds of women: wives and slaves. Wives were effectively walking wombs with the primary task of bearing sons for the husband; and a secondary task of managing the household. Husbands had no obligation to consider her needs or desires. Her body however was jealously guarded by her husband which gave her protection only as far as HIS social status afforded. If a woman's husband/father had very low social status, she had virtually no protection from sexual abuse.
Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and in many societies slaves actually outnumbered "free" people. Slave women had absolutely no claim to their body. Her owner could use her as he wished. That not only meant he had free access to her sexually, but anyone to whom he gave permission could use her as well. It mattered not if she was primarily used as a prostitute or she was primarily used as a cook or maid. Of course, as the 19th century abolitionists pointed out, this not only debased the woman; but debased the slave owning men, pushing them to be little better than the beasts of the field.
The message of Jesus was radical in that he expressly embraced the full humanity of women. The woman caught in adultery, to Jesus, was not just property, but a person. The early Christian message brought along radical new concepts as when Paul admonished men "to love your wives as Christ loved the church" or when he told married couples to mutually consider the other person's needs, equally. This was an enormous break in the traditional view of women. Further yet, Paul said to Hellenistic slave holders that slaves should be treated as brothers not property. Sadly, as we all know, such idealism was quashed once the political powers seized control of "official" Christianity, but his message is still as radical as ever.
It is easy to watch the daily reports of yet another powerful man who used his position to force sexual activity on women, and tell ourselves that only happens in Hollywood or Washington. Not so. Virtually all businesses and even departments within businesses become small kingdoms ruled by a single person. That person might be egalitarian and genuinely care for the well being of those under their control, but all too many become mercurial despots who use their power to debase others lower down the organizational ladder. To such people, it is not a great leap from the use of non-sexual things in their pursuit of personal aggrandizement to the use of their victim’s sexuality. This might take the form of deliberately making an employee feel uncomfortable about his/her sexuality, or it might go as far as directly letting the employee know that the way to success lays in his or her manager's pants. No matter the degree, this behavior weaponizes human sexuality.
This use as sexuality as a weapon is not limited to the workplace of course. We see it quite literally everywhere. Worst of all is in warzones where women and girls are systematically raped to punish their husbands and fathers for supporting the wrong side. Just this week evidence is emerging of Russian troops raping Ukrainian women as part of an official effort to terrorize those under their control. Everyone is appalled by that, but sadly the same vision of women as spoils of conquest is all to alive in our culture. Men routinely measure their manliness by how many women they have fucked. Perversely, "slut shaming," the demonization of women who have multiple sexual partners is practiced by the same men who brag of their own conquests.
The reality is most men do not sexually abuse the women with whom they have contact; however, via the internet many, many men do just this to women with whom they have no contact. Facebook, Twitter and even Tumblr are rife with men verbally attacking women's sexuality. Let me say it clearly, weaponizing sexuality on these platforms is no more morally acceptable than doing it in person.
I don't use Twitter, and my Facebook only has "real" friends and family, so I don't see that behavior there, but I did see it on Tumblr (until I was banned). I know some won't like this but I believe that photos that depict the sexual domination and/or exploitation of women are at least contributing to the problems of sexual abuse. To a lesser extent, I see image after image that do not uplift the sexuality of the participants, but debases both sexual body parts and the sexual act as dirty and/or brutal. I don't intentionally follow accounts that post such images. Just as bad, in my mind, are those people who write degrading things about the women (and men) in otherwise positive photos. Certainly, words like slut and whore are attacks, but so are negative or objectifying comments about body shape or sexual organ size.
Let me close with the admonition that one's behavior on-line is subject to the same moral imperatives to "Treat others as you too would wish to be treated" and "To love others as yourself." Choose carefully the words you use and the images you post and/or repost. My morality isn't determined by who knows publicly what I have said (or posted) but by what I know I have said (or posted) even when no one knows my real identity.