Quite some time ago, I had a strange dream. In this dream I’d met and made friends with a woman. Don’t recall her clearly–long black hair, big brown eyes, that’s all that stuck.
Anyway, in the dream, shortly after we became friends, a group of researchers pulled me aside and explained to me that she wasn’t actually a woman at all. She was a synthetic construct–body engineered and grown in a vat, brain a gigantic supercomputer kept in a huge facility elsewhere in town and remotely operating the body. She was not aware of any of this; she was actually an experiment in artificial intelligence, socialization, and the development of self, carefully monitored over the past thirty years. The place where she lived–a gorgeous penthouse suite, indoor pool and all–was closely monitored ’round the clock, and all her interactions with the outside world were carefully regulated. She was encouraged to keep a private diary, which she believed was secret but which was actually published monthly in a trade journal about AI and machine consciousness.
They took me up to the control room and let me read some of the back issues of the journal. One of her diary entries was particularly strange; she’d somehow got her hands on a book of basic anatomy, and was utterly perplexed that the book showed things that she didn’t have. Specifically, the book showed reproductive and sex organs, and she had nothing of the sort–no sexual organs whatsoever between her legs. No labia, no vagina, nothing. The researchers, somewhat shamefacedly, said they had been too embarrassed to put them in the design when they were growing the body.
I woke up really, really pissed off, with nothing to attach the pissed-off-ness to. It took some introspection to figure out what the pissed-off-ness was connected with; this bizarre and nearly universal sexual shame that we as a species seem to attach to female sexuality.
I’m not talking about the schizophrenic Puritanical sexual asshattery that we in the US attach to sex in general. I’m talking about a hatred of sexual expression in women that’s so virulent that entire societies will surgically mutilate women to prevent them from enjoying the act of sex.
And make no mistake about it–the impulse to label sexually promiscuous men as “studs” and sexually promiscuous women as “whores” is no different in kind; it is the exact same impulse, merely taken to a different but equally illogical conclusion, that drives folks to get out the scalpels.
And it’s everywhere. It’s not just a handful of societies. It’s not just a few places. It’s everywhere. The ancient Israelites had all kinds of weird religious rules about touching women when they were ‘unclean,’ that speaks to a level of institutionalized abhorrence and fear of basic reproductive biology that’s mind-boggling. In Hindu societies, a woman who committed adultery was publicly executed after first having her sex organs cut off with a knife–and the real kicker is that for this purpose, “adultery” could be defined as “talking with a man and touching his clothing.”
This is a level of fucked-up-ness I can’t quite wrap my head around. Seems like everyone’s just scared silly of women’s sexuality. Seriously, WTF?
The part that really blows my mind, though, and the part I really don’t get, is the extent to which women themselves buy into this kind of thing. One thing that consistently mazes me on online forums that have anything to do with discussions of sex or sexuality–any time a woman talks about how much she likes sex, or about enjoying any kind of non-traditional sexual arrangements, especially things like polyamory or (God forbid) casual sex, there will be a handful of guys who’ll say things like “slut!”–but they have to stand in line behind all the women who’re screaming it, too.
And I really want to grab some of these women and shake them and say “WTF is wrong with you? Don’t you understand that by slinging around words like “slut” and “whore,” you’re participating in your own sexual disenfranchisement? What are you thinking?”
And I’m not even talking about the fun use of the word “slut,” as in the “My, aren’t YOU a naughty little vixen? I have just the thing for a naughty slut like you!” that some of my sweeties so enjoy hearing.
So, naturally, I woke up my girlfriend to talk about it.
Enlightening conversation, it was.
She is of the opinion that, popular opinion to the contrary, women are if anything fare more competitive and far more hierarchical than men are. Take a group of three female friends in a bar, she says. Each of them knows precisely what her place in the hierarchy is. If they spot a group of three men across the bar, they’ve already decided which one gets who before the first words are even exchanged. Should one of the men approach the “wrong” woman, her friends will smoothly step in and cock-block him, and order is restored. With, naturally, the men none the wiser.
It starts in grade school, she says–a formalized, competitive hierarchy of popularity and subtle social status, with rigorous standards about which women are eligible to compete for which men. It continues through high school and college, and even carries out into the adult world–often, she says, women wear makeup and jewelry not for the direct benefit of men, but rather to signal to other women their status and intentions in the competition.
And it’s a ruthless competition, with a high cost for those who refuse to buy in.
The cost of not buying in? The women who don’t compete in this way, or who pursue men deemed above their status or outside their league? These are the women labeled “slut” and “tramp”–not by men, but by other women.
Color me astonished; none of this had ever occurred to me.
The internalization of sexual disempowerment becomes, in a strange and twisted way, a tool for creating stability and ranking worth. I think it’s time we reconsidered setting up hierarchies that way.