‘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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  • Alix

    Hey, Virginia’s lovely! Especially if you’re just casually visiting. We have some lovely swamps. :P

  • EllieMurasaki

    *shrugs* elliemurasaki for main/fannish journal, elizabethconall for original fic and poetry, what’s yours?

  • Müntzer

    Sorry, i am from a place where these things function differently.

    Rape is a sign of weakness because obviously the rapist is unable (socially, materialy, etc.) to get sex any other way.

    Sluts are made mainly by other women, but hardly by man (though the mechanisms are not clear to me).

    Here i noticed that the viciousness you describe stays mainly within the girls circle, e.g. the things you describe as being able to brand you a slut are mainly enforced and observed by girls (though not all girls) and are of little interest to the boys (until you get problems with your girlfriend or your girl friends for hanging out with the wrong girl, which is the moment where you have to carefully consider your options).

    Bullying here is very much divided among the gender line:

    Boys bullying boys, girls bullying girls, with sometimes things spilling over the line but only temporarily.

    Also the world as a place of monstrous i mainly know from a) my feminist history teacher and b) an article about why the Taliban enforce the wearing of burqas.

    Which is not to say that there is not a precise table of expected and supported behavior here that you better show or get out, though mainly on pain of social ostracism, but not rape.

    And yes, i am a male German.
    I thought that was clear from the moment i did not scream rape, rape, rape along with everybody else. :)

  • EllieMurasaki

    Germany must be a goddamn fucking PARADISE if rape in Germany is anything BUT a means for the rapist to assert power over the rape victim.

  • Müntzer

    Then maybe you can point to some part with little population?! ;)

  • Müntzer

    Well, thats another theory i do not share.
    Yes, for the victim rape is definitly about power.
    For the rapist?
    I don’t think it is that easy.

  • EllieMurasaki

    …Do your fucking homework on the subject. I’m done with you till then.

  • Müntzer

    Does it matter though why one is raped?
    I would guess it always the same level of humiliation and despair independent of what motivated the rapist was, no?!

  • Müntzer

    You will done with me forever then.
    I did my homework and rape is not just about Power.
    Yes, i know, heresy, but that is how it goes.

  • Alix

    LOL. In all seriousness, though, Virginia has some lovely national forests, and there are all sorts of cool little places around the Bay.

  • Darkrose

    darkrose; I’m also darkrose on AO3.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I will make a note of that. (Can’t Dreamwidth at work.)

  • Bethany

    I went to a wedding once where most of the women the groom had dated were there. Doesn’t seem to have freaked him out, although he did have something of a look of resignation in the ex-GF photo that one ex-GF suggested we should have the photographer take (lined up in chronological order with the bride last and then the groom).

  • Müntzer

    I doubt they were able to catch a native.
    The way i read that was that they were out of food and on their last leg… hardly a situation where you want to start a skirmish with well-fed and well-rested natives.

  • Müntzer

    One question though:
    I am missing something here and i am not sure what:
    Why is so important WHY somebody rapes?
    It is always unforgivable and always a crime, so what does it matter whether a rapist is a sadistic psychopath or the jerk next door with poor self-control and severe blue balls?

  • Müntzer

    Is that Charleston bay?
    Where they shot at one fortress to start the civil war?

  • Alix

    Nope – that’s in South Carolina, two states south. I meant the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Winter

    No, that’s Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which is two states further south. I believe Alix is referring to Chesapeake Bay.

  • Müntzer

    Yeah, Charleston, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina… well, that would be Norfolk and all the big naval yards then, right?

  • Müntzer

    That this would only be true of a 100% lesbian.
    Every other percentage value would mean that percentage of likeness for penis sex.
    I still wonder though, why we are still discussing what somebody who proscribes a ‘dicking’ as a cure means by that.

  • Alix

    There’s a Charleston, West Virginia, but to the best of my knowledge not one in Virginia.

    Norfolk’s at the mouth of the Chesapeake, yeah, and the bay reaches all the way up into Maryland. It’s the biggest estuary in the US, and boasts an awesome bridge. XD

    I love the Bay.

  • Müntzer

    And if learned nothing else, i did learn that there are two virginians and that Chesapeake bay is nice.;)

  • Alix

    Yes, but we’re the real Virginia, whatever those upstarts over the mountains say. ;)

    Just, fair warning, don’t visit in the summer unless you like really hot, really humid weather. :/ That’s the one thing I could happily do without, climate-wise.

  • Alix

    Because, depending on the reason why, it might be possible to reduce rapes.

    If, for example, people rape out of a sense of entitlement, changing the culture/socialization to eliminate or reduce that sense of entitlement would reduce rape rates.

    It’s the same for any crime, really – understanding the reasons why people do it is the first step towards getting them to stop.

  • Müntzer

    Okay, no summer vacation then.

    When it gets past 30 °C here (and we tend towards relativly dry summers though we get the occasional gust from the North Sea 200 kms away) all i do is lying in a corner and waiting for winter… i am more of a winter or spring guy…

  • Alix

    …Never stopped the colonists. My state, folks: founded by the stupidest, luckiest bunch of colonists ever.

  • Alix

    Well, except that starvation cannibalism is usually an opportunistic act. People rarely go out actively hunting for another human to eat, especially if they’re from a culture that deems cannibalism a heinous crime.

    The colonists didn’t think much of the locals, but they did recognize them as human.

  • Müntzer

    So why is it important then (or so it seems to me) that rapes happen out of a desire for power?

    Is there some theory hanging behind that?
    I sit linked somehow to patriarchy?

    I mean i only get the sense whenever i say that i do not believe rape is purely about power that is just commited heresy, but i cannot for the life of me finger out why other than the usual responses a lá Ellie basically telling me shut up until i am willing to concede that fact!?

  • I imagine that there is a marked overlap between people who think Lesbians could be “cured” by rape and people who think that the only reason gay men exist is because of sexual abuse by older men.

    Because penises are magic.

    (Though the more faux-sciencey types will come up with all kinds of “proven scientific” reasons for this, complete with weird notions about semen being addictive and penetration triggering hormones that cause permanent neurological changes)

  • Müntzer

    Anyway, when i read about that case of cannibalism i assumed that they ate a corpse, not killed somebody to eat.
    Is it clear that they killed that girl?

  • Alix

    Someone else’ll have to answer the main part of that, because my understanding of the causes of rape is somewhat shaky.

    To the best of my understanding, “rape is about power” is a way to reframe rape away from the really problematic view that rape is about sexual attraction. Rape is often seen as a crime of passion, a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing, a lust-driven thing, and that’s all used to let the rapist off the hook.

    But rape isn’t about sexual attraction or lust. It’s a move to violently assert domination and even ownership over the victim. That’s why rape and rape threats tend* to be directed towards people who aren’t “toeing the line” – “uppity” women, for example; people who don’t know their place, people who don’t fit the comfortable little boxes of the mainstream social narrative.

    There’s also another framing for looking at rape, and one that makes a lot more sense to me: as a hate crime.

    *Note: not exclusively, just often.

  • Müntzer

    Wait, you are saying semen is not addictive?
    Whats next, telling me the fetus does not need to be fed with semen during the pregnancy?

    (I really hope everybody realizes the sarcasm.)

  • Alix

    From what I’ve read, the butchery was clearly post-mortem (and rather inexpert, at that), so it doesn’t appear, from the remains they have, that she was killed in order to be eaten.

    That said, the bones are in pretty bad shape, so while the going assumption is that she died in the famine, it’s entirely possible she was murdered and the evidence is missing or garbled.

  • Or she’d been told so many times that she wasn’t supposed to be a sexual being that she felt a sexual desire and didn’t know what to do with it or how to respond, or whether or not it was the sort of desire she wanted to act on.

    When we teach half of people that “yes” is never an acceptable answer, we’re teaching the other half that “no” doesn’t mean anything because it’s just the one-and-only-answer-you-will-ever-get.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Essentially correct. Even when rape is a ‘heat of the moment’ thing–for instance, when in the midst of consensual sex one partner says stop and the other keeps going–it’s not about sex, it’s about power. Control. The rapist does not, he thinks, have to surrender any control over the situation, and asking if his partner’s willing before initiating sex counts as surrendering control, as does halting sex when his partner says to. He might do it sometimes–all too often, a rapist’s victim is someone who has had consensual sex with him before and would be willing to again if he only asked, which is how we know blue balls ain’t got a thing to do with it except as an excuse for why the rapist couldn’t help raping. But having to do it all the time suggests that he’s not the one with the power in the situation, which he finds intolerable.

    The rape threatener is generally going after someone who’s breaking the rules of the rape threatener’s neat little kyriarchal world. Who’s threatening the perceived in-power-ness of the rape threatener. And he, like the rapist, thinks he can get away with it because all men are rapists.
    Those last four words? Not a feminist belief. A rapist belief.

  • Müntzer

    I see.
    I still don’t share it though.

    But i have got an interesting new interest now:

    Reaing up on Kyriarchy, though first impression seems to indicate that Schüssler Fiorenza does not believe in writing sentence that are easily comprehensible. ;)

  • LL

    I think the impetus for those who do the trafficking is money. I doubt they themselves could identify any other motive for it. We know people can compartmentalize, and have daughters and wives they treat lovingly while abusing other females. (And some traffickers are themselves females.) I doubt most of them are hardcore, super-religious, “a woman’s body is a sacred vessel” proponents.

    The “purity culture” thing probably comes in more on the law enforcement and government side. Like many people figure “decent” women don’t get raped, these people (cops and government people) claim to believe (though surely most of them know better) that all prostitutes are in it voluntarily, for the money. And if they’re getting protection money from traffickers (as I assume many of them are), all the more reason to stigmatize all “sex workers” and deny there’s a problem. Or if there is a problem, it’s isolated incidents. Win-win. They don’t have to bother to investigate things they don’t consider crimes, and they get some extra income. As long as their daughters/sons are safe, they don’t have to care about anyone else’s. There’s money to be made, the most important religion of all.

  • Seems likely some of that “women are valuable possessions to be passed from one male to the next” culture rubbed off on him too.

  • Shenandoah Valley remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in, and I’ve been all over the country.

    (Albeit I may be biased toward GREEN parts of the country. Grand Canyon… meh. Niagara falls… eh.)

  • Oh, for crying out loud, Muntzer.

    It’s not about whether the woman herself is “100% lesbian”.

    The straight man telling the lesbian that all she needs is “a good dicking” to teach her how to be straight (and thus to stop pissing him off by daring to not need a man, i.e. him, in her bed) is himself operating under the assumption that the “good dicking” will be nonconsensual. He perceives her as Not Loving the Penis; whether he is correct in this or not, and to whatever percentage he is correct, that’s the premise he’s starting from. Therefore his assumption is that what he’s recommending is not something she wants happening.

    Whether there is any 0.0001% chance of a hypothetical case in which the aforementioned lesbian would consent to PIV sex is beside the point, and does not redeem the interaction. In this conversation, what the straight man intends to tell the lesbian is “I hope you get raped.”

  • I find “You need to chill out” pretty offensive to begin with. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to disenfranchise me of my own emotional response to situations. Which is something men do to women a lot, from telling us to “Smile!” to telling us “I understand your gripe, but don’t you think your anger is all out of proportion to the situation?

    Sexualizing it into “You just need to get laid” is just the awfulsauce rape culture icing on the failfood misogyny cake.

  • Derail.

  • Alix

    We used to go camping there every summer. We finally banned Mom from picking the days, because whenever she did it always poured.

    The first time I ever went out there, Dad dragged us out on a surprise trip on a Sunday, all of the rest of us just home from church, still in our Sunday best. He didn’t give us a chance to change. So I ended up going on a casual hike in a frilly dress and dress shoes, in a rainstorm, with colored lightning flashing just over the mountain ridge. It was awesome.

  • Alix

    Word to all this.

    My entire family pulls that shit, and they’re convinced I’m some kind of rage machine, because it never fails to torque me off. I finally had to explain to them that actually, it usually takes a lot to make me truly angry – but telling me how I’m supposed to be feeling is a surefire way to do it.

  • When people perpetuate the myth that it’s all about pent-up sexuality, they start looking for what’s causing him to be so sexually frustrated and every woman in the area wearing something that’s NOT shapeless full body sackcloth is suddenly the cause for blame.

    Never mind that statistically, men rape women in such clothing more often than otherwise.

  • Or to be more accurate (I suspect), it’s back to the rapist theory, “No means yes. Women only say ‘no’ to play hard to get, when deep down, they know they like it.”

    … I seriously feel dirty now and that wasn’t even a bitter notfunny parody.

  • Alix

    Ross, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who held one of the beliefs you mention in your first paragraph who didn’t also hold the other.

    Consistency: not, apparently, a human strong point.

  • Alix

    The purity culture is also part of (not nearly all of, but part of) what keeps the victims of trafficking from themselves seeking help or a way out – after all, if you’re worthless now, if you’re a whore/slut in the eyes of your culture, why bother to escape? You’d just be escaping to more of the same.

    (I should note that I in no way believe that, and I am aware sex trafficking is a hell of a lot more complicated than that.)

  • erikagillian

    It’s even worse than that. More subtle.

    “Rape jokes are not jokes. Woman-hating jokes are not jokes. These guys are telling you what they think. When you laugh along to get their approval, you give them yours. You tell them that the social license to operate is in force; that you’ll go along with the pact to turn your eyes away from the evidence; to make excuses for them; to assume it’s a mistake, of the first time, or a confusing situation. You’re telling them that they’re at low risk.”

    That’s from Meet the Predators, a post on a blog called YesMeansYes. It’s rather famous now, you may have seen it but it’s really worth another read, it’s disturbing as hell but paints a very clear picture of what’s going on.

  • People have elaborate defense mechanisms to keep them from realizing that what they’re doing is victim blaming. As long as they don’t actually say the words “It was her own fault”, but instead couch it as “Now obviously it’s not her fault, but when you go out dressed like that, well, she really should have known what would happen,” they can convince themselves that it’s not victim blaming, just some Good Sound Advice Dontcha Know.