Is Equality Between the Sexes Possible?

Is it possible to have equality between the sexes?

Given the history of sexual relations on this planet, a logical answer would seem to be a resounding NO. But I don’t think that’s so.

Yes, absolutely, I do think that equality is possible. However, it can only be possible when humankind, especially the male fraction of the species, agrees to give up its apotheotic quest for the god-like status of an immortal being. There are hints that there is movement in this direction (more on this later), but we have a long way to go before the bulk of humankind can reconcile itself to the idea that our bodies are all we are and souls do not exist except in our collective conscience.

I sincerely have sympathy for people who want to live forever. Our quest for immortality is the basis for a lot of our sociality. We share a belief in eternal life with others like us. We build institutions and organizations to perpetuate and nurture this belief. It’s an appealing prospect until one begins to read the fine print or we begin to kill each other to defend ‘our’ god against the gods of ‘others’ who dare to try to usurp our vision of the way to eternal life. The way gods work, there can really be only one that is the true god. All others must be pretenders. (This isn’t strictly true. Even one god, the one proclaimed by Moses and Abraham, can be the source of real division, death and mayhem). That said, let’s get to the nitty gritty.

It’s evident that males and females of many species of animal are dimorphic, meaning that the sexes vary in body size, shape and weight, hairiness, and in other easily ascertainable ways. Us humans are significantly dimorphic with males being on average stronger, bigger, etc.[1] So, men and women are not equal in many respects. This has lead a whole lot of conservative thinkers and philosophers going back as far into history as the eye can see to make the logical leap to conclude that these physical inequalities are the natural basis for the social, economic, and political inequality of the sexes. This is patently absurd but it doesn’t stop those who claim a logical basis for their arguments in natural human variation from making their claims on clearly ideological grounds.

It’s certainly true that there is huge variability in male human size, strength and shape. Some theorists might dare to suggest that the Nilotic peoples, especially the Dinka and Nuer, being very tall and thin on average, must be superior to the BaMbuti people of the Ituri Forest in central Africa, who are what we used to call pygmies, and who are very short and compact. The same is true for intra-female variability. The variability of human form is quite evident still, of course, but there is evidence that with international travel and population mixing that the variability that we have seen historically is very slowly attenuating.

Of course, we’ve seen evidence in history that skin colour, eye shape, etc have been significant bases for the imposition of social inequality. We ‘other’ people for all kinds of convenient reasons especially social and economic power. We deny people equality for whatever reason we can dream up or make up as long as it’s in our interests. So, what about the inequality that exists between men and women? Well, I think I’ve repeated it often enough, but it may be worth repeating again. Men have longed for immortality for as far back as we can ascertain. Their literate representatives who have gotten into the history books and have written a huge range of proclamations on the topic going back further than ancient Babylon have been pretty well in agreement that women are a huge stumbling block to achieving the objective of immortality. Women just can’t help but get most of us poor men all lathered up sexually and by that process, take our limited attention away from our focus on our spiritual salvation and eternal life.

It’s pretty common to read in historical documents, including the Bible, of course, that any form of pleasure of the flesh is sinful and leads to eternal damnation. In her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and The Catholic Church[2] Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s focus is on Church writers, theologians, popes and the like. She also, however, goes beyond her analysis of women and the Catholic Church, to consider relations between men and women taken more broadly. She notes that although it seems that proscriptions and interdictions regarding sex are pretty straightforward in historical texts, we cannot assume that everyone was on board with those specialists, philosophers, theologians, etc., who were often celibates and who lorded it over the masses. It seems the masses weren’t always in agreement with the high and mighty and often ignored interdictions even to the point of suffering persecution and social exile.

Of course, it’s really quite ridiculous to expect people to not enjoy sex. Plainly, there are many circumstances where sex is not at all pleasurable, especially for women and even ejaculation can be painful at times for a small minority of men. Still, essentially, sex and pleasure go hand in hand. I (and I daresay most men) would find it very difficult not to feel some pleasure upon ejaculation. Ironically, according to many writers historically men are not supposed to even experience ejaculation (during masturbation or coitus) unless it’s sanctioned by the authorities and only under very socially proscribed situations. In fact, Ranke-Heinemann notes that church authorities even discouraged sex between spouses, some going so far as to dictate time of day, day of the week, months of the year. Needless to say, the Church fathers were only concerned with male sexual pleasure and regulating it, not female pleasure, which they often assumed never existed.

Let’s not fool ourselves either to think that regulation of sexuality is a thing of the past. Female (and male) genital mutilation is still commonly practiced as well as segregation of the sexes. It’s also still common for states to try to regulate what you can do in the privacy of your bedroom.

One last thing before I move on. It’s clear that not all men are misogynists and women victims. Humans will always find ways of sharing intimacy and revelling in sensual, sexual pleasure no matter what the ayatollah, the pope, imam, rabbi, or whoever goes on about how bad it is and how it detracts from our main goal of immortal life in the presence of our preferred deity. It’s also true that women can have just as much of a stake in immortality as men do. The only difference between men and women in this regard is that men have made up all the rules and women must obey or live eternally in hell.

It’s also clear to me that men and women can equally be jerks, self-serving, mean, nasty, and violent. They may choose different paths to meanness, nastiness and jerkiness on occasion, but elimination of the search for immortality will not necessarily do away with the human condition although I really am optimistic that there will come a time when there will be less basis for stupid, vapid, ignorant human behaviour. The elimination of competition for favour in the eyes of God or just for individual specialness, even on the football field, will take us a long way to equality of the sexes. Just don’t expect dramatic results too soon.

It’s also true, I’m pleased to say, that we can love profoundly and unconditionally. Problem is that we do that in spite of all the social forces that work to divide us when they should be working to bring us together romantically, whether it’s woman with man, woman with woman, man with man or a combination of the above. I’m not saying we should abandon all restraint and engage in all out debauchery, but we should all be engaged in figuring out as we go along what we want rather than have the high and mighty do that for us in the name of a false hope of immortality.

Next: how little innocuous things like words, sayings, and practices can reinforce and even exacerbate sexual inequality.

 

 

[1] See de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a detailed exploration of this topic. Germaine Greer takes a slightly different look at sexual dimorphism in humans in her book, The Female Eunuch.

[2] New York, Doubleday, 1988.

The Barbarian Status of Women

http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/veblen/women

Click on the above link to read an article published in Volume 4 of the American Journal of Sociology in 1898/9 by Thorstein Veblen who at the time was teaching at the University of Chicago where the Journal was created by Albion Small who was the first scholar to actually hold a chair in sociology in the US.  The article is entitled The Barbarian Status of Women.  It’s written in a typical ‘Veblenian’ style which for people now makes it almost unreadable.  Still the message is sharp and clear if you can decipher it.  if you read it you might want a dictionary handy.  Now, into the fray. 

So, in this day and age, we’re used to hearing about patriarchy, the oppression of women, feminism, the glass ceiling, the double ghetto, etc.  In other words we’re acquainted with the notion that women are not the equals of men.  Of course we know what the data say about women’s inferior rates of pay, high poverty rates, etc.  Well, when Veblen was writing this article probably 120 years ago, there were the beginnings of an organized women’s movement in the US expressed partly in the suffragette movement.  Women were yet to be ‘allowed’ to vote.  The suffragette’s demanded it. In a real way, I think that Veblen tacitly associated himself with this movement. I’m not going to go on about this here;  what I want to deal with here briefly is Veblen’s use of the term Barbarian Status of Women.  

For Veblen, the status of women in his day could easily be traced back to primitive times when men were hunters, developed hunting and exploitative skills whereby they got their status in the group.  Because women could not develop those skills being burdened down with pregnancy and domestic activities, etc., they were denigrated and considered ‘infirm.’  Soon enough that way of seeing things got pretty well entrenched in culture.  Marx had earlier suggested that there was a state in primitive society when there was equality between the sexes.  Men were in charge of the hunt, women were in charge of the home and nobody argued about it (too much).  Veblen didn’t buy that argument.  He found no evidence for it.  He saw the relations between the sexes as essentially predatory.  In fact he concludes that women were not only treated as inferior because they could not compete in the hunt, they were often the ‘prize’ gotten in raids on other groups.  Women ‘gotten’ in this way became the property of men and only the toughest, meanest men in the Valley actually had wives, many if they could sustain them.  This arrangement, Veblen argues came down in history and was the norm still in his day in his culture which he describes as predatory.  Eventually he argues, men had a harder and harder time finding women in their pillaging trips and so had to settle for incorporating predatory institutions in marriage with their ‘own’ women, women in their own tribe.  It wasn’t that long ago – actually it still happens everywhere – in marriage ceremonies and their aftermath that the groom was required to carry the bride to the bridal bedroom.  His property, his prize.  Marriage in our culture is still pretty much a patriarchal affair.  Men are still the ones expected to seek out a bride.  Men, to prove their manliness, must somehow control access to sex either through marriage or by buying it.  Prostitution is not about women selling their bodies for the pleasure of men.  It’s much more about men buying sex, going out and getting it, not unlike in earlier predatory times when ‘buying’ meant capturing in a raid.  Money is a symbol of power in our culture.  If a man has enough of it to buy women, then he can consider himself manly; he can consider himself successful in the raid.

That explains how women became the property of men and still are to a large extent in cultural terms, but it doesn’t really explain how women have come to be plagued with so many negative associations even today.  Veblen had something to say about this too and I’ll address his views on this in my next post but for now, you can think about all the things women are associated with and the things men are. Women are culturally associated with the body, men with the spirit.  Women with the moon, men with the sun.  Men with the right, women with the left. A woman who has sex is promiscuous, a ‘dirty’ whore.  A man who is promiscuous is a stud.  How did those associations come about?  That’s the subject of my next post.