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The War on Women's Sexuality

From New Dehli to the war on women here, sexual freedom has sparked a global conflict. An expert explains why.

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We have to be careful to make a distinction between cultural backlash, which cuts across all kinds of communities, all kinds of religions, and then the Islamist movement, which is a more particular form of backlash that takes on a political form.

We see vaguely related tensions between “honor” and “self-determination” in Western cultures, too, right — take, just for one example, the SlutWalks?

You hit the nail on the head. The SlutWalks is a very interesting example of that. That tension plays out between social conservatives and liberals in this country and elsewhere in the Western world. If we look at the history of the West and the world at large, these highly patriarchal societies are the norm. We go back to 15th, 14th century Europe and, of course, there’s quite extreme levels of patriarchy. That thread is historically deep within Western societies. It doesn’t completely go away, obviously, but the conservative side of things gets much more diluted with time. It does come down to issues of the body and what one’s commitments should be, and it comes around on discussion about different approaches to prostitution, different views on pornography and the like. It is absolutely there, but it’s a more modest form than what we see on a global level.

Why, exactly, has the West moved away from that patriarchal notion of female honor?

If you go back and look at the history, particularly in Europe, and look how things developed in that context, it is very patchwork. We have the Protestant reformation, which breaks down the church. There’s still obviously a lot of conservatism within those Protestant movements but the importance of the individual gets to be increasingly stressed. Quite quickly, the Dutch begin to show a more liberal orientation to these issues. Really, from the 1600s you begin to see the Dutch women have more independence, willing to be seen in public, show cleavage. There’s the sense of owning the body, and also the rights of capitalism. It leads to an interest in autobiography for the first time in the case of the Dutch; they put stress on what we call the psychology of the inner life. An interest that follows from that is trying to figure out who you are; the idea of the authentic self is beginning to emerge. Women speak in candid and even crude terms. Couples openly kiss in public. And visitors to the Netherlands at the time are utterly struck and start reporting it to other parts of Europe.

It’s not a big leap from that idea of using my body in economic terms to using it in social terms for marriage, for dating, et cetera. In a way, that debate never goes away, it just keeps expanding, like our conversations around marriage today and the idea of monogamy. There are those who support monogamy and those who contest it, and there’s a same kind of thread. The contesting of monogamy is in some senses that it limits your choice, and whatever side one falls on in that debate, it plays to the same tension. Anyway, it really begins to expand after World War II, where the value of virginity before marriage drops precipitously, for example.

Are those values of “honor” and “self-determination” at all reconcilable? What can we learn from zooming in on the role women play in these global conflicts about the way forward?

If you look across the global landscape today, the role women are beginning to play, and the strides they are making in these various areas from economic to education to shifts in fashion and the like, the flip side of that is that men in aggregate in parts of the world are beginning to fall behind. Growing alcoholism, dying at younger ages in places like Russia, micro-economic loans in countries as different as Bangladesh and Ghana are limited to women because they are on average more responsible in using those loans. So, there’s a dynamic we’re going to have to pay much more attention to, not just the strides women are making but some of the problems emerging in terms of men and in some sense a crisis of masculinity we see playing out.

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