In all the conversation this week surrounding the killing rampage that took place in California, there has been a recurring quote by Margaret Atwood on social media,
Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
The killer was motivated by insecurity stemming from issues surrounding his sexuality; he felt ignored by women and threatened by other men. And though people are outraged, nobody is surprised. Mental illness may be a factor but part of the root of his psychosis is real. And archaic.
Consider some of the oldest slander on earth: the role of Eve’s sex in bringing sin into the world. On the page we read that Eve and Adam lived in perfect relationship with God and with one another (and had no shame about their sexuality, by the way) and yet each chose to sin. But at some point in extra-biblical history Eve’s sexuality became serpentined throughout the story. Adam was not tempted by his own flesh to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Eve used her fleshly enticements to deceive him. Throughout time and cultures women have been associated with the origination of sin, having a greater inclination toward it and a knack for leading their counterpart astray. Females have been made into symbols of temptation and lust; sin incarnate; something to be conquered.
The narrative threads of misogynistic mythology are woven throughout history into the present day. Rape is a weapon of war. Harems are displays of power and wealth. Women are prizes to be possessed or seductresses to be burned at the stake. An intact hymen is the paragon of holiness. This vulgar doctrine did not die with the middle ages. In the last month I have read article after article where female sexuality is a matter of life and death. Hundreds of Nigerians kidnapped by extremist Muslims had a common factor that made them targets: their sex. Female students with dreams of furthering their education and starting careers are reportedly being auctioned off as wives.
And in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim just gave birth to a daughter in the prison she has been living in with her 20-month-old son. Under Sharia law she has been sentenced to 100 lashes for “adultery” or marrying a Christian man. (Note that there is not an equivalent law for Muslim men, who may take multiple non-Muslim wives.) And as a self-proclaimed Christian, Meriam has been sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy.
The underlying principle behind extremist religious groups and the most permissive, sexually liberal groups is the same: a woman is her sexuality. Whether perpetuated by physical or moral force it is a dangerous mindset. It says that a female’s ultimate worth is determined by her virginity or her sexual behavior; that her identity is connected to her vagina and how and with whom she uses it. As in the case of the recent headlines about murder, kidnapping and imprisonment, sometimes the enforcement of this mindset is obviously violent. But it can also be very subtle, made more palatable when mixed with ideas like love and protection.
Another headline in the news reported an exhibit by Swedish photographer David Magnusson depicting American purity balls, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers’ safekeeping until marriage. Some of the girls in the photos are likely years from sexual maturity. It could be argued they are too young to even comprehend puberty. Yet their parents and communities make them perform in ceremonies centered around a prohibition on sexual activity. Something that should be private, something a girl should have exclusive rights to, is instead put on parade. Last I checked, the Bible pretty clearly condemns pagan religious rituals that elevate virgins and sex worship.
May has been a month of heavy news but it has also bolstered a desperately needed dialogue. A few things I’ve been reminded of:
Misogyny is a fact of daily life. The discrimination and objectification most women face doesn’t make headlines. In part, we have all, male and female, learned to live with it. Hateful language, unwanted sexual advances, denigrating double standards. A woman’s sex is frequently used against her. Back when I breastfed my first daughter I was once at a venue where I was ordered to a closet with a one-way mirror. You know, like a police interrogation room. As though providing food made by my body for my child was flirtatious. Years before in college I once walked one city block at night and in that amount of time had a car drive past, turn around and pull up alongside for a man to catcall. In pants, a long coat and a headscarf my first terrified thought was that somehow I had inadvertently invited attention.
Misogyny is engaged in by women, too. I have heard phrases like “she was asking for it” or “she tempted him” uttered more by women than men, hands down. Likewise insults like bitch or slut. I know very few women who have not had other women accuse them of being controlling, vain, selfish or rude when in reality they were simply exhibiting success, confidence, strength or independence, often making difficult choices in difficult circumstances. Just as there are many men who desire to subjugate women, many women desire to outrank one another. They manipulate feminine traits and feed into stereotypes in order to wound.
Misogyny is not a woman’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem. If your response to sexism against women is denial that it exists or self-defensiveness, you’re doing it wrong. Part of the problem is that we are still telling lies about masculinity that hurt both women and men. Alpha male is a term for dogs, not men. And parents of boys shouldn’t just be sitting this one out. Please don’t tell me my daughters need to be modest and recognize the consequence of dressing or acting in certain ways. Tell me what your son is learning from you about women through your language and attitude and behavior.
Reducing a girl to an acquisition is appalling. I refuse to prime my daughter to be someone’s conquest. As an autonomous person made in the image of God, her origin is sacred and her value is intrinsic. I won’t teach her she was created to be a gift for a man. I won’t teach her that she has any responsibility for the gaze or thoughts or actions of men. I won’t teach her that parental pride in her hinges on her choices about dating and marriage. I won’t teach her that your daughter is competition. I won’t teach her that your son is someone to fear. I am raising my daughter with more respect than that, for both herself and others. Let’s raise our daughters and sons to be whole people. Let’s set them up with better expectations for themselves, their peers and their future.