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The Patriarchy's Double Bind

How American attitudes toward sex inevitably punish women

The more I think about the culture of sex in our society, the more I feel like hurling light fixtures at the wall. The fact that an army of male politicians is currently engaged in battle over the territory of my uterus is disturbing enough, but the subliminal cultural forces surrounding sex and its byproducts push me into rage mode.

I'm talking about the parallel channels of our media that paint sex as simultaneously something to be achieved at all costs and to be avoided at all costs. On one side of the arena, you have the literal words of the religious right preaching abstinence. There should be no need for contraception, they say, because unmarried people shouldn't be having sex anyway. Young people who end up fornicating have made an awful, immoral decision and should be held to its consequences--especially the young women who end up pregnant as a result of their choice to have sex. We hear this narrative in schools, on the Senate floor, in all sorts of official contexts where Republican men may have their say. 

And then there's the rest of American culture, screaming at young people--especially men--that they should be boning, boning, boning all of the time. If they're not having sex, they should be trying to as hard as possible. We see sexual experience heralded as the marker of masculinity. The more partners you've had, the more of a man you get to be. Even among women, who aren't explicitly encouraged to sexually conquer their peers to such a degree, adulthood virginity is seen as the mark of prudishness or peculiarity. Having sex early and often is the cultural norm. It's suspended in mainstream media, influencing behavior far and wide.

So we're caught in something of a double bind, where not having sex is bad and having sex is also bad. And ultimately it's women that lose.

If we really want to cut down on the number of unwanted pregnancies that occur in this country, it's not the women we have to go after. It's the whole system and its contradictory narratives, the ones that shame men for not having sex and then punish women for having it. Players within American capitalism know full well the power of the teenage and young adult sex drive. They harness it for profit, but they also fabricate a dangerous doublethink, a cognitive dissonance against the government's explicit messages.

Maybe if we stop thinking of intercourse as the social jackpot and start considering other methods of expressing sexuality, we might actually start to see a healthy attitude toward sex pervading the culture: one that doesn't hurt both men and women in its rigidity.