Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How liberating was the sexual revolution, after all?

by Brenda Jin

Over 40 years after the summer of love, we're still asking the eternal question: are beauty and sexuality detrimental to women? Shouldn’t women flaunt what they own? This is an issue that transcends class, race, and economic circumstance. For example, in a recent article in The Guardian, Annie Kelly explored the relationship of economy to education in Katine, Uganda, highlighting the fact that young women in Katine are economically disempowered. Even if they earn money from jobs such as working in a garden or selling food in the market, according to Kelly, a young woman’s income is nevertheless controlled by the family, and she will have no say in how it is spent.

So when it comes to such necessities such as sanitary equipment for their menstrual cycles, women are forced to ask the men in their families for money. At UShs 5,000 ($2.50) per pack, monthly sanitary equipment costs more than most families can afford, especially after other expenses like school books and uniforms. As a result, female students often miss several days a month because of their menstrual cycles; without the appropriate equipment, they face embarrassing leaks, a problem that becomes more complicated with inadequate toilet facilities.

This regular absenteeism results in more than just embarrassment and disadvantaged performance in the classroom. In such situations, young women turn to the one thing they do own and can use for economic empowerment: their bodies. Growing up with a deficit of economic empowerment plays a key role in helping girls in Katine discover their sexuality as a bargaining tool for basic living necessities so that they can continue their educations.

"If you look at many of the challenges we face and the barriers which exist preventing young girls from achieving their potential it all comes back to money in one way or another," said Evelyn Okoth of Mifumi, a Ugandan women’s rights NGO. "Girls are lured into transactional sex relationships with often older men because it is the only way they can get the things they need, which results in high numbers of teenage pregnancies and girls leaving school before finishing even their primary education."

It's ironic that in attempting to empower themselves by continuing their education, these young women turn to self-objectification, perpetuating the idea that they are assets or property rather than as potential financial or economic sources of power, an idea reinforced by the current practice of “bride price” in Uganda, whereby brides are exchanged for resources such as livestock, money, or land from the son-in-law’s family, according to Kelly.

But using sexuality in order to compensate for economic disempowerment is not an unfamiliar problem. Self-objectification in the name of self-betterment is not confined to Katine or even to the developing world. And I would argue that it is equally familiar to women in America. Because shouldn’t women be damned proud of their god-given beauty and female genitalia?

In the face of a lack of individual agency in the realms of economic or political power, those groups who lack power will resort to—and perhaps overuse—the only agency they possess, to the point where it can become detrimental to long-term wellbeing. When the girls in Katine lack the power to change their economic realities, they turn to their bodies for agency. When women are not granted the opportunity to excel in their careers as quickly or as equally as their husbands, they pride themselves even more in their given area of excellence: the domestic sphere.

Sexuality is a self-defeating source of power in the end for both women in Katine and for women in America, because of the dangerous potential and tendency for women to be lured into reducing themselves to precisely what they were trying to overcome in the first place: their status as objects.

American women have come a long way in the quest for equality, but progress for women in America should not and cannot stop at sexual liberation. We have yet to earn equal pay. We have yet to receive equal employment and educational opportunities. We have yet to be perceived by all—including ourselves—as more than our biological potential for child-bearing and as a source of pleasure. We have yet to be accepted and measured by our contribution to society above the fact of our gender. Without having achieved equality in society, we have become content to be satisfied with sexual liberation, and we have only achieved for ourselves the only power that we were given from society in the first place, that which reduces us to objects and commodities: sex.


At September 2, 2009 at 9:24 PM , Anonymous Elitist class warfare said...

In traditional Western cultures, below the rank of aristocrats, romantic and sexual impulsiveness was a major threat to social standing. The punishment in terms of class standing for out-of-wedlock births was so harsh that the illegitimacy rate among women in England in 1200-1800 was stable at around 3-4%, even though women didn't marry on average until age 24 to 26.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, which hit home in the 1970s, disrupted this traditional system of social sanctions. You can see its power in the spread of the term "single mother," which is now used as a self-description not only by mothers who have never been married, but also by divorced mothers, and even by widows with orphans! My wife knew a Korean lady with two young daughters whose husband had been killed in a car crash. Being old-fashioned, I assumed she would describe herself with that honorable term "widow." But, being a newcomer to America, she had realized what I hadn't noticed yet: "widow" was out of fashion, "single mother" was in.

And yet ... the old logic that children need two parents to have the best chance to succeed in life still plays out even though we aren't supposed to mention it. What I've noticed in socializing with financially successful families whose children are on the academic fast-track is that they follow the old rules implicitly. Divorce is relatively rare, illegitimacy even rarer, mothers who aren't highly-paid executives are typically housewives, and so forth.

So, by removing social indoctrination of the masses, the post-Sexual Revolution system selects even more than the earlier system for social success by individuals who are intelligent and cold-blooded. In contrast, people of impulsive temperaments and less ability to foresee the consequences of giving into their impulses are now much more on their own with far less guidance from the culture.

Thus, the people in the upper reaches of society are increasingly of what you might call a Swedish or Swiss personality (or are Asian immigrants whose families never took seriously the 1960s).

But nobody is supposed to notice that publicly. So, the top level of our society continues to argue for the breaking down of old restrictions, whether on the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman or that their should be limits on debt and interest rates. After all, individualistic self-determination works fine for the upper middle class.

At September 3, 2009 at 12:37 AM , Blogger Anna said...

While I thought your arguments were sound RE resorting to using one's body as a commodity in Uganda, it was unclear what you were arguing about the United States. First of all, I wasn't sure what social phenomena you were referring to - women who choose prostitution out of economic necessity, or women who focus on being sexy trophy wives instead of pursuing their own career - an option you suggest is barred from them because of disparities in pay. I do think I see your point, there - that all women are economically disempowered as long as wages remain unequal - but I wish you had backed it up with some more concrete evidence. How many women really use their sex and beauty to snag rich husbands (which seems to be what you're referring to, for instance?) Is that really something they're forced into out of economic necessity?

One sentence - "Because shouldn't women be proud of their god-given beauty and female genitalia?" - really struck the wrong chord with me, especially given its close juxtaposition with the story about women in Uganda. To me, the cases are so different that the comparison loses all meaning.

And, I especially object to the choice of picture for this post. Why, when you're talking about complex economic oppressions facing poor Ugandan women, in addition to vaguely-defined American women, do you need to sexify the article with a picture of a naked white blonde?

At September 3, 2009 at 9:56 AM , Blogger Amelia said...


The picture was my choice, not Brenda's - I was trying to illustrate the later point of the article (not, clearly, the issues with the Ugandan women), which is that women in the United States turn to their bodies for self-worth. I don't think Brenda's point is that American women, because they can't succeed in the workplace, turn themselves into trophy wives - it's much more subtle than that. You can use your body for agency in a lot of other ways, and looking at the booming plastic surgery industry or the ways that sex is used to sell women pretty much anything (even PETA has suggested that you'll be sexier if you're a vegetarian), all indicates that women, because they can't reach the some of the same types of self-actualization that their male peers enjoy, turn to their bodies for self-actualization, and pin their self-worth on loosely defined standards of beauty that are inevitably destructive. Brenda's point is that in Uganda, it's blatantly obvious that this is objectification and commodification of the female body, but she is also making the point that so-called "sexual liberation" actually commodifies Western women's bodies as well. Even if you're not selling your physical body, is it much better to be a slave to expensive makeup products in the hope that you'll be taken seriously at work (and not subjected to the "get back to the gym" crap that got thrown at Hillary Clinton recently) or to get plastic surgery to make yourself so-called attractive?

Yes, there's probably a better picture to accompany this post - I'll change it. But I hope this clarifies Brenda's argument.

At September 3, 2009 at 1:28 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Elitist class warfare,
Your argument is:

1. Western cultures have traditionally punished out-of-wedlock births through loss of class standing.

2. This has changed, at least in theory, in the past forty-fifty years, and women are now much more likely to embrace out-of-wedlock births. They are also more willing to parent without a partner in the event of an out-of-wedlock birth or the loss of a partner through divorce or death, and view this as an accomplishment rather than a shame.

3. Children are more financially and academically successful with two wedded heterosexual parents performing traditional gender roles. Due to 2., everyone pretends this isn't true.

4. Therefore, financial and economic success (that is, upper class standing) is even more strongly tied to those families who do not practice 2, but no one can acknowledge this. The majority of these families have "Swedish" or "Swiss" personalities, or are Asian.

5. In conclusion, the Swedish/Swiss personalitied and Asian upper class is deliberately promoting 2., and other ideas about equality and autonomy (and somehow relatedly, unregulated interest rates), in a nefarious plot to keep the middle and lower middle classes down.

Now: are you aware this argument makes no sense? And that all of your evidence and examples are faulty, so that even if your logic was unimpeachable your argument would still fail because the evidence wouldn't warrant your assertions?

Carry on with the real discussion, everybody else, I'll join you when I'm feeling a little less irritated.

At September 4, 2009 at 8:52 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


I think you have grossly misrepresented Elitist class warfare's argument. Although he has done a poor job of articulating his ideas (I particularly dislike the use of labels based on race or nationality...) the gist of what he is saying seems to be simply this:

- Self-control has huge benefits for oneself and one's children.
- Self-indulgence is detrimental to one's well being and to the well being of one's children.
- People who have mastered self-control, and teach it to their children, have less need for external guidance from the culture. So, they argue for individualistic self-determination because it works well for them.

I'm not too sure about the third point, but I see plenty of evidence for the first two.

The fact is that the sexual revolution has had devastating effects for many people. The costs are personal, social and economic. The following article describes the economic costs in Canada:
I imagine the relevant figures are roughly a factor of 10 higher in the U.S.

At September 19, 2009 at 8:30 AM , Blogger Rookh Kshatriya said...

Anglo-American women don't want authentic liberation. Even wealthy, highly educated women with access to contraception use sex as a bargaining tool to manipulate and exploit men, without them having any real reason to do so. Women also retain a biologically-ingrained sexual elitism, which leads them inevitably to classist/racist sexual behaviour.

This is why you don't see young, attractive middle class white college girls having sex with old working class guys who drive trucks or collect garbage. In the simplest sense, they are sexual Nazis. As Robert Wright once said: would the average upper class girl even talk to a working class guy, much less have sex with one? It's those hard questions that have crippled the feminist 'movement'.


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