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Policing Women’s Sexuality

Last week I helped oversee a program at First Year Orientation.  (Most of my colleagues still call it Freshmen Orientation even though the University has had an inclusive language policy for years.  It’s one of those battles I just can’t seem to win.  When I went to the University of Maine in 1992, they had already stopped using the term Freshmen.)  At Orientation, the students participated in an educational theatre program where short skits were performed and then students could interact with the actors in character about the topic being introduced.  The four skits included one addressing racism and sexism, one addressing alcohol, one on the combination of alcohol and sexual assault, and one on consent.

In general the students responded as one in my field of student affairs and social justice would hope.  Yet there were a few outliers that left me with a sick feeling.  After the consent skit, two different women, in two different groups, stated that the woman deserved what she got because she was “teasing” her boyfriend. The story goes that a young couple return from a party.  The young woman’s roommate is gone for the weekend.  They begin kissing and the woman states she doesn’t want to have sex that night.  The boyfriend misses every possible clue and forces himself on her.  The woman makes multiple signs of no, including saying no, pushing him away, removing his hand and telling him that they don’t always have to have sex when they are together.

I left this day thinking a lot about these two women who have been socialized by our media saturated society to honestly believe that if they are kissing a guy that means they have to give it all the way up.  Whatever happened to the bases analogy?  And those of us who are old married folks KNOW that kissing certainly doesn’t always lead to sex, it often leads to a good night’s sleep.

One woman even said to the actress playing the rape victim “You deserve what you got and you should get off the floor crying like a little bitch.”  It took everything in my power not to pull this young woman out of the audience and give her a pile of books to read and an old fashioned talking to! 

Then last night I went out to dinner with a friend who told me she had seen a mother and two little girls at the beach this summer, all wearing bikini’s.  The mom had a lower back tattoo (referred inappropriately by our sexist culture as a “tramp stamp”) and the little girls had fake matching tattoos in the same place.  Her immediate response was that this was wrong and the mother was a horrible mother for allowing it.  I suggested that maybe the term “tramp stamp” much like the term “slut” was the policing of women’s sexuality by patriarchy.  Yeah, I know that’s a wee bit theoretical, but it makes a lot of sense.  Her comment begged the question of where the term “tramp stamp” even came from.  And oftentimes we don’t take the time to question origins of cultural expressions we take for granted.

Then we talked about whether those girls wearing fake tattoos on their lower backs was sexualizing them.   I said they were just trying to look like their mom and that it was only sexualized if we allow it to be.  What is the difference between putting a fake tattoo on your lower back or your arm?  If we allow for a certain body part to be sexualized, then yes.  When The Vagina Monologues first cam e out, everyone was freaked out about that word.  Now it’s commonplace. Isn’t that the whole issue with breast feeding in public?  Women’s breasts have been sexualized by the policing of our sexuality by male supremacy that women get flack for feeding their babies.

At the very core of this analysis is a history of oppression of women’s bodies.  To be too comfortable in our skin and free to express our sexuality is something that must be controlled and prevented.  I attribute the whole Brazilian waxing phenomenon to this and to the porn industry.  Women have been policed to the point where they think that having pubic hair is dirty.  And men (and other women) contribute to this policing by talking badly of women they suspect having hair. 

I am happy to be a middle aged married woman who doesn’t have to live in a world where my body is constantly being policed to fit into a narrow spectrum of sexuality.  I mean there’s that whole “you must be skinny” culture, but at least I don’t have to look like an 8 year old girl. 

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