I was going to write something about sexual violence today, but I find it so hard to get my head around what I hear and read about the monstrous objectification of women that I do not know where to start. And when faced with the idiocy of some of the comments over at Butterflies and Wheels (see here and here), the dim-witted male supremacist ideology of blaming the victim (as well as outrageously suggesting that Ophelia turned the story around to be about her, when nothing could be further from the truth), I wonder what I could possibly say that would be at all relevant to the increasingly misogynistic hyper-sexualised social context that women increasingly confront in their ordinary day-to-day activities. So, I am going to leave that to perk on the back burner for now, and hope that I can find something remotely helpful to say to about a situation that should concern us all.
I’ll leave that as it came to me, but then I realised that this was something that I needed to address, after all, and I simply went on writing about it, even after having put it, as I thought, on a back burner for the time being. What I cannot understand is the attitude of men who think of women simply as objects to use and abuse in perverse acts of sexual violence. What lurks in the minds of men who gang-rape women? And lest we think this happens only in the East, it is important to pay attention (as Emer O’Toole suggests in a Guardian article) to the widespread sexual violence in the West — to the fact, for instance, that a young woman in Ohio was kidnapped by the football team, drugged and then taken from party to party where she was raped and abused by countless young men who clearly lacked the moral ability to recognise her as a human being at all. And instead of the widespread protests that accompanied the Delhi attack, the woman in Ohio seemed simply to slip through the cracks. Football jocks are above suspicion, the young woman must have done something to invite such abuse. What underlies this deep hatred of women? For, what else is it when a 16 year old girl is kidnapped and this happens:
the girl was drugged into unconsciousness, ferried from party to party, raped and urinated on before ending up at home where her parents, discovering she was disoriented, took her to a local hospital?
How is hatred of women like this to be explained? In Delhi the young woman was gang raped and an iron bar was driven into her body so that her intestines were destroyed, and she and her beaten boyfriend were thrown out of a moving bus. The woman, known simply as Damini, was treated in a way very similar to the way Japanese soldiers abused women in the infamous “rape of Nanking”. How do men explain this to themselves? I do not understand.
The strange thing is that religion is scarcely mentioned when this kind of misogynistic violence is discussed. Why not? Is it only secular society that creates the cultural context in which these acts of violence and hatred are directed with such obvious virulence towards women? Obviously not. For the Roman Catholic Church was involved in this kind of sexual violence, much of it directed towards children (who are similarly vulnerable), on an unbelievably vast scale — for how long? — decades? centuries? millennia? And much of this clerical sexual violence was “justified” by speaking of sexually precocious girls and boys. (And that it was often male on male abuse of boys does not mean that it was homosexual, and did not implicitly speak to the church’s infantilising of women. It just means that boys were more accessible to priests and male religious.) If you read what is written about the sexualisation of women in Cairo, for instance, where most women are veiled from head to foot, and yet are pawed and fondled in public places, it is clearly not unrelated to the position of women in the religious imagination. In the Roman Catholic Church, with its deification of one woman, Mary, where popes close their encyclicals and other documents with some kind of address or prayer to Mary for protection, sex is so cabined and confined that it is thought to be legitimate only for the purposes of procreation, a role which, it is supposed, by theologians, exalts women, but really denigrates every woman but the ones who adhere strictly to unrealistic prescriptions. Every other woman is sexually compromised, and therefore inevitably sexualised. Either virgin or whore, really, for a woman who has sex only for procreation is as virginal as it is possible to be without actually being one. To suppose that this does not have the effect of objectifying and sexualising women is foolish, and to suggest that it exalts women is simply a delusion.
More troubling, in my view, is the increasingly widespread notion that morality is completely relative, and that we cannot know that some things are right or wrong. This is at least partly one of the spin-offs of the new atheism, sadly, as though ridding ourselves of the absolute moral prescriptions of religion, and belief in the moral authority of sacred texts, we have also got rid of morality as such, which then becomes a matter of opinion, and not of knowledge. This, it seems to me, is a dangerous trend, and if it continues it will make nonbelief morally untenable. For, whether we are prepared to recognise this or not, the religions are not devoid of moral understanding. What is wrong with religious morality is that it gets the foundation of morality wrong, not that it has no grasp of morality at all. The frequent claim of the new atheism that we can be good without god is an empty one if morality is, in the end, merely relative and a matter of opinion. This does not mean that there are moral absolutes that must be adhered to because there is a god behind them who will not brook any infringement of his laws, but that there are moral obligations, and that we can know what they are, is a necessary condition of being able to be good without god. We may dispute what the grounds of such obligations are, and there can be much discussion of precisely what things are good or obligatory, but it is absurd to think that we cannot know them, or be held to account on the basis of what is known. The church may have got the basis of morality very wrong, but at least it did provide a moral framework within which to live. To rid ourselves of that inadequate framework, and provide nothing in its stead is a recipe for moral failure.
But one thing that the religions have got terribly wrong, because they are all, without exception, patriarchal in structure and function, is the way in which the station and duties of women have been understood. In respect of women the focal point of religion has been women’s sexual function, to which men are thought to have a proprietary claim. Therefore, one of the main functions of religion has been the control of women’s sexuality, and the restriction of their sexual freedom. This has created, in practically every society, a curiously restricted notion of sexuality itself, the outcome of which has been, on the one hand, a very limited public recognition and acceptance of sexuality, and, on the other hand, an almost Byzantine complexity of sexual practice and response, some of which is due, not simply to the richness of human imagination, but to the very repression which was intended to keep sexual desire flowing in prescribed channels. The continued emphasis placed by the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of abortion is precisely to maintain the social focus on women’s sexuality as the normative social purpose of women — which is to have sex, bear children and care for them. As became very clear during the recent American election, women, on this view, are bound to bear the children of any man who has sex with her, consensual or not. If it is not obvious that this objectifies women and their sexual function, then nothing that I say will convince you. A society which claims the right to control women’s reproductivity in this way inevitably forces women into a secondary and subordinate role in society. If a woman cannot freely decide whether to bear a child or not she is not free. She is a sexual object. This is a religious category.