‘The belief that they’re entitled to control women’s bodies’

(Trigger warning: Men who believe “that they’re entitled to control women’s bodies” do, condone, encourage and instigate some really awful deeds. This post deals with some of them.)

Beyonce’s Clothes Do Not Create Sex Trafficking,” Amanda Marcotte writes.

That seems obvious. Mrs. Carter, after all, is only 31 years old, and I’m pretty sure that sex trafficking existed before 1981. While her Super Bowl show was almost enough to convince me that Beyonce has super powers, I still doubt those include transcending time and space in order to be the cause of something that began thousands of years before she was born.

And yet this Huffington Post writer argues exactly that. She says Beyonce’s supposed “immodesty” is “feeding a demonic myth” that promotes the forced prostitution of young girls.

And that’s where Marcotte’s response comes in. After noting that countries that strictly police women’s “modesty” are among those with the worst records for sexual trafficking, she cuts to the heart of the matter:

Sex trafficking has a simple, straightforward cause: Men who believe they are entitled to control women’s bodies. Both pimps and johns that go to trafficked prostitutes simply believe women are theirs for the taking, and act on that belief. Feeling lust for a woman does not automatically translate into believing you get to use her however you like. Millions of men stare at Beyonce’s beautiful body all the time without even having a moment of thinking that they get to rape her. Sexual desire doesn’t create rape. The belief that women are property does.

I get why it’s tempting to police women’s clothing and sexual choices in an effort to stop sex trafficking and other forms of rape. It stems from a hope that there’s something women can do to stop rape: If you cover up more, behave more modestly, discourage male lusts, etc., maybe that will stop rape and trafficking! But it’s bullshit. The only thing that stops sexual abuse is to stop men from developing the belief that they’re entitled to control women’s bodies. I realize that seems like a tall, daunting order and it feels easier to tell women to cover up — even though that’s wholly ineffective — but it’s the only thing that will actually work. After all, most men do not actually rape, become pimps, or seek out trafficked prostitutes. So it’s not like it’s impossible for men to get the message.

Siccing the modesty police on Beyonce won’t help to stop sex trafficking. Beyonce isn’t part of the problem. But the modesty police are. They feed the same ideology that fuels sex trafficking: “the belief that men are entitled to control women’s bodies.”

Another part of the problem comes from the comrades in arms of the modesty police: the Purity Brigade and “purity culture” more generally.

Earlier this year we saw an astonishing wave of articles and blog posts from evangelical Christian women standing up and rejecting the damaging “purity culture” that American evangelicalism has embraced in lieu of a credible sexual ethic. The substance of this critique echoed what folks like Libby Anne, Dianne Anderson and Sarah Moon had been saying for a while, but it came to a boil for dozens of others — people who maybe didn’t think of themselves as feminist — sometime around when Sarah Bessey’s “Damaged Goods” essay was posted at Deeper Story. Those folks began speaking up and telling their stories — stories of the harm done by or excused by this Christian “purity culture.”

This week we heard that same story told yet again, but this time in a more extreme context. As Libby Anne writes in linking to this Associated Press story: “Elizabeth Smart, a girl who was kidnapped at age 14 in 2002 and held captive for almost a year before she was rescued, recently explained that these exact ideas about sexual purity can aid and abet human trafficking.” Here’s a bit of that story:

Rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart said Wednesday she understands why some human trafficking victims don’t run.

Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”

Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

… Smart says children should be educated that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”

This purity culture teaching of “damaged goods” and “that chewed up piece of gum” is just another expression of the belief that men are entitled to control women’s bodies.

Richard Beck responded to Smart’s recent comment by revisiting his earlier post on what he calls the “toxic” psychology of Christian purity culture. Do go read the whole thing, but here’s the crux of it:

We treat sexual sins and the loss of virginity very differently from other sins, as a class of sin unto itself. And how do we make that happen? We accomplish this by framing these sins almost exclusively with purity metaphors. And in doing so we recruit a psychological system built upon a food-aversion system, a system driven by disgust, revulsion, and nausea. But instead of directing these feelings toward food we are now directing the feelings of disgust, revulsion and nausea toward human beings. More, we teach our children to internalize and direct these feelings toward themselves.

And I think we can sharpen this point even more.

Based upon my experience, I would argue that male sexual sin isn’t generally framed as a purity violation. The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor. If a boy losses his virginity it’s a mistake, a stumbling. Consequently, this is something he can easily rehabilitate. He’s not damaged goods. He can simply resolve to do better going forward. How is this so easy for him? Because his sexuality is being regulated by a performance metaphor.

By contrast, and this is the heart of of the matter, the loss of female virginity is almost exclusively regulated by the purity metaphor. For females the loss of virginity is a bit more than a performance failure. It’s a loss of purity that, because of the way purity works, is catastrophic and beyond rehabilitation. And because of this she’s got no way to move forward, metaphorically speaking. The game’s over. And thus she reaches the only conclusion the purity metaphor makes available to her: She’s damaged goods. And all the emotions related to that judgment of contamination rush forward as she internalizes all the shame, disgust, revulsion and nausea.

This is the psychology that makes the Christian purity culture so toxic.

It is not surprising that sexual traffickers and other predatory men are able to harness this toxic purity culture for their evil ends. That’s what it was designed to do. That’s what it’s for.

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  • I… don’t entirely agree that raunch culture has nothing to do with sex trafficking, though certainly the obsession with purity is just the flip side of that and I do not doubt it has the effects you say.

    The thing is, I think that if you constantly bombard people with messages of SEX SEX SEX EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME, it is inevitable that they are going to start feeling entitled to their self-indulgence (at least as long as they can slap down money to pay for it). I don’t believe that that fine print of “but only if you can find someone who wants you” really registers among the constant barrage of YOU ARE ENTITLED TO SEX SEX SEX SEX!!!! Self-indulgence does breed victimisation, because self-indulgence does not care about anyone but yourself – that’s what I think.

    And that is why I really can’t stand Amanda Marcotte, for all that I agree with her on the broad strokes of most issues. She is all about the coolness of self-indulgence (not to mention being all about *coolness,* which is an obsession that I really feel people should get over once they leave high school).

    But having all that said – no,if I set out to stop sex trafficking, Beyonce would not be my first stop either. I’m not sure why people make a fuss about her, to be honest, when the media is filled to the brim with oversexualised images of women. Is it just because she’s a woman willingly showing off herself, instead of a man showing off other women? I definitely sense a major double standard in there somewhere…

  • hf

    Arguably raunch culture has a problem here. But you can’t avoid endorsing selfishness at some point (short of destroying all life). Moral behavior can’t consist solely of helping others to help others help others. It has to bottom out somewhere in ‘selfish’ desire.

  • Certainly I wouldn’t tell anyone that they should dress in sackcloth and ashes. We only have the one life, and we have to try to find some joy in it. But I don’t feel that the dominant message in our culture is “everyone is entitled to a little slice of what they want,” but rather, “you’re entitled to absolutely everything in the entire world (unless of course you’re some kind of LOOOOOOSER, in which case you don’t deserve anything and can drop dead).”

  • Müntzer

    I doubt that purity culture alone is to blame here.

    Rape, apart from the loss of ‘purity’ is also humiliating, damaging, makes one feel weak, maybe even bad because one was not able to stop it.

    That is not part of Purity culture but part of the problem our culture has with weakness and ‘neediness’, the realization that people need help sometimes and are not worth less for that.

  • Müntzer

    The subtext is basically ‘it is yours if you take it’.
    From someone else preferably.
    And if your short on sex, you might apply that general consumer message to that.
    With unfortunate results like human trafficking and rape.

  • mhelbert

    This would be an appropriate observation if it wasn’t for the fact that victimization of women, girls, and young boys has been around a lot longer than any ‘raunch culture.’

  • mhelbert

    Jennifer Crumpton has some pretty good takes on this topic, as well, over at her Patheos blog, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/femmevangelical/

  • Carstonio

    The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor.

    Huh? I’ve always seen it framed as a rite of passage or a validation.

    It is not surprising that sexual traffickers and other predatory men are able to harness this toxic purity culture for their evil ends. That’s what it was designed to do.

    Purity culture is what I would expect of a society where marriages are property exchanges between the woman’s father and her new husband – it’s about preserving the daughter’s market value.

  • Few things that are that widespread have only a single cause. And when it comes to the human tendency to exploit others for our own gratification, I don’t think a cause is even needed – it is part of human nature, the only thing we can do is encourage or discourage it.

  • mhelbert


  • Jurgan

    “Huh? I’ve always seen it framed as a rite of passage or a validation.”

    Among evangelical Christians? Maybe some, privately, but I’m sure the main view in that culture is that premarital sex is basically negative. It’s just not as negative as for women. But I’m not an evangelical, so I’m just inferring.

  • Kirala

    Jurgan is dead on. Evangelical Christians look down on premarital sex in general. Unfortunately, many evangelicals ALSO belong to Hyper Masculine Patriarchy culture, in which losing virginity IS a rite of passage to manhood, so they tend to be forgiving of boys who slip up in the face of all these Worldly Pressures. And since both evangelical culture and HMP culture prefer female virginity until marriage, girls are supposed to be stronger than that. Never mind the pressure from both cultures to be kind, accommodating, and compliant when a guy asks or demands something of you as a gal. Or the power differential. Besides, women don’t really want sex as much as men, and have to watch those sexual wiles which make it so men just can’t help themselves – so women really have all the power here, anyway, so why are they complaining?

    This actually is what bothers me about Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” sexuality. (I don’t track her closely enough to have an opinion of her body of work on average.) She’s flaunting her body as a good which her former lover failed to control, so control is passing to another man – “if you like IT, then you should have put a ring on IT,” not “if you wanted me, you should have committed to me”. I enjoy seeing people enjoying sexuality, but I hate it when I see sexuality divorced from personhood.

  • I would argue that raunch culture viewed through a lens of purity would have the effect you suggest, but raunch culture on its own would do this to a significantly lesser degree — and I suspect, though I can’t support with any evidence, that if the elements of purity culture that infect raunch culture (if, for example, pornographers excised the words “slut” and “bitch” from their professional vocabulary and from this day out present expression of human sexuality as healthy and normal), even that would go a long way towards muting this effect towards the statistically insignificant.

    The entitlement endorsed by raunch culture is universally entitlement to do with your own body as you will, which, while it can lead to extreme short-sightedness and, coupled with a patriarchal attitude of entitlement towards women, certainly feeds the beast, has positive and healthy aspects as well. Raunch culture’s pushback against purity culture led eventually to things like Dan Savage’s promotion of GGG sexuality (good, giving and game), sex-positive feminism and egalitarian dating and sex models, and even the marriage equality movement — none of which could exist if we didn’t abandon the purity culture’s insistence that people be judged and held accountable for natural sexual curiosity.

    Raunch culture’s public presentation is one defined by its excesses and is quite guilty of overreach, but its major significant positive contribution to society is having made it both harder and less desirable to judge others for what they do in private with other consenting adults — both by presenting sex as normal, fun and healthy, and by endorsing all the weird, kinky shit that even GGG lovers balk at.

  • When it’s cast as a negative (through the lens of avoiding pre-marital sex at all costs), it’s framed as a “stumble.”

  • Jurgan

    Oddly, I kind of see the male-female discrepancy explained by the inverse of the Platonic myth. This isn’t something I’ve studied in depth, so bear with me, I’m likely to get some of it wrong, but I’ll give it a shot.

    As I understand it, the Platonic idea is that physical form is something weak and fallen, something to be overcome. A common idea in Christianity, though, is that your body is pure and holy, a gift from God. It’s not quite the same idea, but it seems related, because it’s only holy as long as it’s untouched by the “fallen” world. I’ve heard plenty of times that one’s body is a temple and should be treated with respect. That means if you take something into it, it’s “sullied.” Note, though, that a man isn’t taking something in during sex, he’s letting something out, something that would find release eventually anyway (if only during sleep). So a man’s body can be considered essentially the same after sex. A woman, on the other hand, takes something in to her, something which stays inside, so it could be seen as have been tarnished. Of course, it’s all nonsense- barring STD or pregnancy, an individual sex act has no sustained physical effect on either party (regular sex can affect health, but that’s long-term, not a single “slip”).

    There’s also the idea of the hymen rupturing. This is correlated with first-time sex, but it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. However, I can see how it could contribute to the idea that a woman is “damaged” after sex. Basically, there are some physical differences that could explain why sex is treated differently for boys and girls, but none of them are meaningful enough to justify the shame that comes with it.

  • Jurgan

    Christians should be the last ones to make that mistake, given that a fundamental tenet of the religion is that none of us are worthy on our own, and we all need grace. What happens is that they are blamed for their victimization, as though it’s their fault, ignoring the fact that everyone makes mistakes and no one deserves rape as a punishment.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I remember reading the post that Feministe had about this article.

    I still stand by my thoughts then. My comment both there and on the article was basically this:

    So, in other words…Dear Important Person, Please quit saying things I disagree with. I am right, you are wrong, and it offends me that you dare think differently. Signed, A Very Self-Important Individual.

  • Jurgan

    A major idea of “rape culture” (which is closely related, I think, to your “raunch culture”) is that we condemn victims when we should be condemning perpetrators. This wouldn’t stop rape, but it would make it harder to get away with. There will always be people who want to rape, but if they knew that it would almost certainly lead to a heavy prison sentence, it might deter some of them. It would also make it much easier to recover from the psychological trauma of the event.

  • Jurgan

    I’m not sure what you’re saying. Which article are you commenting on? Who is the Important Person, and who is the Self-Important Individual? Is Fred one of them, or Amanda Marcotte, or someone else? I don’t get the antecedent here.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Sorry, you’re right. I wasn’t clear enough on that.

    I meant that as a bit of a summarization of the initial letter to Mrs. Obama. The thing that stuck out to me the most was how the letter writer presented their opinion as red; saying “I dislike Beyonce because of X, so *nobody* should see her as a role model.”

  • Jurgan

    Ah, I see. Thank you.

  • Fusina

    That is interesting, as I saw it as a song saying, “If you wanted me to be committed only to you, you should have been willing to make a commitment to me, too bad for you because I am awesome.” Not control, but monogamy–which is a good thing when it is not forced upon you.

    Arrrgh! Life is complicated to explain.

  • Fusina

    My daughter and I were discussing virginity–and after discussing the purity movement and etc… she thinks that there are some people out there who worship an idol–virginity, represented by a hymen–not quite sure how one would model that…

  • Carstonio

    I was talking about US society broadly.

  • Kaylakaze

    I find it odd that Air Force CoS Mark Welsh’s comments the other day aren’t mentioned here (at least not by name), given that they promote the exact same “damaged goods” mentality throughout the military.

    BTW, petitions to fire the guy can be found here http://signon.org/sign/general-mark-welsh-usaf and here https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/fire-air-force-chief-staff-mark-welch/VZGxqphB

  • Dumb Typos

    Fred–It is “Dianna” not “Dianne” Anderson.

  • Huh? I’ve always seen it framed as a rite of passage or a validation.

    Not in the Evangelical subculture, which is what is being discussed in the post Fred was quoting. In Evangelicalism (and the various Evangelical-esque religious groupings, like the Mormons) the mainstream view of sexuality is “always bad outside of marriage, period.” So in the official sense boys get just as much crap for having sex as girls.

    However, boys are generally thought of as being supposed to want sex. I remember that the attitude generally held by the people I hung out with it was regarded as a male quality that boys push boundaries and a female quality that girls tell the boys to stop. Nothing that I recall ever got into that purity/performance failure dichotomy discussed in the quoted post, but the idea is pretty much the same. If sex happens it’s because the boy did what boys do and the girl didn’t do what girls are supposed to do. Therefore the boy failed in an expected way and the girl just plain failed.

    And I do recall hearing things similar to the chewing gum analogy Elizabeth Smart used. Your virginity was supposedly the greatest gift ever (you know, other than that Jesus dying for your sins thing, but one was spoken of in more theoretical terms than the other…). Joshua Harris’s execrable I Kissed Dating Goodbye even went to far as to argue that you should never kiss anyone until your spouse on your wedding day. It started with an story about him imagining his wedding and somehow all the girls he had ever dated were there and that somehow diminished his relationship with his bride because — LOOK OUT OVER THERE! AAAAAH!

    So…yeah. And please don’t get me started on all the prayer group meetings where someone would admit that he had real struggles with masturbation and pornography. That was a whole ‘nother level of messed up.

  • Jurgan

    Okay, but I’m pretty sure what you quoted was referring to how it’s treated in the evangelical community.

  • Jurgan

    “If sex happens it’s because the boy did what boys do and the girl didn’t do what girls are supposed to do. Therefore the boy failed in an expected way and the girl just plain failed.”

    Yes, she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. Or, you know, she didn’t try hard enough to stop it. Sure, she said she told him no, but she could have stopped it, so we know that secretly she really wanted it but doesn’t want to admit it because then people will know what a dirty slut she is.

    (Note: I am being darkly sarcastic; I am not attributing that attitude to you, Geds, in any way)

  • Müntzer

    We are on completly different roads here.
    I am not talking about rape as punishment (i find the idea alone hard to conceive) nor about sins as punishment (other than on the most superficial level).
    I talk about a culture of achievement that some Christians (god damn, John Calvin) have helped set up and that basically reduces you to what you earn and the status symbols you can present (The prosperity gospel is a even more heretical variation of this).
    With this also comes a certain sleaziness. If you stole what you have, it is only a crime if you were clumsy about it, not if you did it proper.
    And that would be the core of the problem for, that the same seems to go for sex now:
    That if you can get it without actually being accused of rape even if you use manipulation, emotional stress, etc. (and regardless of your gender) it is fine.

  • EllieMurasaki

    rape as punishment (i find the idea alone hard to conceive)

    Clearly you have never been a lesbian told that all you need is a good dicking.

  • If that were true, then sex trafficking would be through the roof in places soaking in raunch culture, but next-to-non-existent in places in which raunchy stuff is strictly forbidden. Instead it’s the opposite.

    (Have to go, won’t be able to reply for a long time.)

  • Kirala

    Yeah, the metaphor worked for me till I saw the music video – and then for some reason, the dance made me feel like it was simply a bunch of interchangeable female bodies on the market. Which is a shame, because I like the dance. (Maybe I’d’ve liked it better if they were dancing against someone?)

    And I’m glad it works for you the way it’s supposed to, and maybe it works that way for most people. It just strikes me badly.

  • Müntzer

    No, but than again that might have not necessary been intended as punishment but as very strange ‘reparative therapy’.
    The same as gay man get told they only need to get laid by a proper woman (or when they get over a prostitute in order to ‘get over it’).

  • EllieMurasaki

    Okay, let’s try this: Read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Trigger warnings for everything, rape being a big one. Let me sum up: Rape is a weapon. And often it is used punitively.

  • Orclove

    I’m sort of surprised there wasn’t more cannibalism-apology when they determined that Jamestown girl had been eaten.

    I mean, it was obvious to me that she would’ve been left alone if only she hadn’t dressed so savory.

    … Yeah, I’m going to a very *special* hell.

  • Orclove

    Yeah . . . but no. Because rape frankly *more* prevalent in societies that are all chador’d and burka’d up. I was having drinks with some people *last night* one of whom was an Australian woman who’d just gotten back from Qatar. And her message to the ladies was don’t, DO NOT, get into an elevator alone with a Qatari man. Whether you’re Arab or not Arab, Muslim or not Muslim, scarfed or not scarfed, veiled or not veiled, you are officially Fair Game for full on groping-on-up from men in the Middle East.

    So no: Cultures that are NO SEX NO SEX NO SEX NO SEX NO TIME EVER!!! have way more sexual coercion in them.

  • Müntzer

    I know that, but only because rape is often (sometiemes) used as matters of punishment, ethnic cleansing and war fighting does not mean that every time a man says about a woman that she needs ‘a dicking’ he is advocating rape.

    He is a sleazy slob, sure, but thats about it.

    Also in African conflict zones the number of women commiting acts of sexual violence is growning.

    Yes, sexual violence is possibly punitive because it is humiliating but it is humiliating independent of an idea of purity (which would also beg the question why, if it is based on purity, rape is also humiliating for men being raped?).

  • EllieMurasaki

    I suppose it’s possible that suggesting someone have sex she doesn’t want is not advocating rape. Can’t see how, though. My initial point was, in any event, that if you can’t conceive of rape as punishment, then you’ve led a privileged life.

  • Müntzer

    If somebody where to suggest to me, that i need a dicking, i could interpret that in order to solve whatever perceived problem is adressed by that remark, i would need said dicking.

    So if i wanted to solve that problem i would then go and find me a dicking.

    As for rape a punishment:

    I responded to Jurgans thesis that victims of rape feel guilty because they perceive their rape (and i read that as any rape) as punishment.

    I doubted that because i both dislike sweeping statements (they are false in their absoluteness) and because i think that there are more reasons for feeling bad after being raped.

    And yes, i find it hard to conceive that rape could only be perceived as punishment.

    Maybe i lead a live privilieged by lack of self-mortification.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Who said anything about rape only being punishment?

  • Müntzer

    I understood Jurgan that way, though i think that has been worked out by now.

  • JustoneK

    Rape isn’t just punishment. It’s frequently a threat of punishment used to enforce social order, ie kyriarchy. Anytime women (and sometimes men) step outside the culturally mandated spheres – women in tech conferences, women on the internet, women on the streets – it happens, trying to scare them away from where they Should Not Be.

    Just like bullying, it helps maintain someone’s ideal status quo, and it’s bullshit.

  • I was hoping someone a lot more educated than me could answer this, but why is the girl white? I was under the impression there were no European women in Jamestown, am i wrong? Cuz that seems like a pretty big thing for someone to get wrong.

  • Rape as punishment is one of the primary motivators behind rape apologetic — the assumption that something women are doing makes them more likely to be raped relies upon the belief that rape is a logical and expected outcome of certain forms of behavior.

    (Second time trying to post this. If my other post shows up, blame Disqus.)

  • Ugh, that whole remark about hook-up culture in middle school. Sorry, if girls in middle school are sexually active, they are typically being exploited, but of course, HE doesn’t see it that way. Those filthy temptresses were asking for it! *vomit*

  • Speaking of books, ordered yours today! Amazon says it should arrive on the 16th. I’ll drop what I’m reading then so I can read it more quickly and give you my thoughts. :p

  • Someone’s sexual orientation is NOT a problem that needs solving. Someone someone “prescribing” a good dicking to a lesbian is advocating corrective rape.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • Alix

    European women arrived in Jamestown starting in 1608.