Tags: experts, female sexual dysfunction, Feminism, healthcare, language, news, reproductive health, sex, Sexuality, social construction, war on sex, war on women
You may have noticed that there is a war on women being waged in the United States. It’s not a war (always) fought with weapons and explicit acts of violence (although violence against women is very much alive and well.) It’s not (always) a war confined to a physical area in space (although genuinely terroristic activities can target certain facilities used by women more than others.) It is very much a Cold War, one fought via politics and policies, threats and fears. And like all wars, this one has casualties – women, most obviously, though women are not the only ones to feel the shocks. You don’t have to be a lady to express femininity, and thus to be perceived as womanly – and therefore in need of “Correction.”
So what exactly is this war on women, and what does it mean?
The war on women is big enough so that you have to step far back to really take in its overwhelming scale. The war on women means that in the US, social services used by a whole lot of women are getting scaled and cut back. The war on women means that services related to sexual and reproductive rights in particular are the target of vitriol and budget cuts. Social services broadly include social safety net features like Title X and prenatal care, food assistance, and more.
The most talked about targets in the war on women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare (this week) are Planned Parenthood and contraception in general. When anti-abortion politicians infiltrate women’s health care organizations and then deliberately divert cancer screening funding away from other healthcare services – precisely because that targeted organization provides abortion among other things – that’s the war on women in action. When a bunch of old guys get together to whine to Congress about how much they hate contraception and don’t let the people who actually use contraception talk – that’s the war on women in action. When politicians create barriers to care – like when they design & then try to ram through “Personhood” laws and/or laws that require needless medical procedures or waiting periods to obtain legal medical services – that’s part of the war on women. It goes on.
Maybe you don’t want to call it the “War on women.” Maybe you are not a woman and so believe this does not apply to you – you’d be surprised. Sexologist Marty Klein and historian Dagmar Herzog address overlapping subjects when they talk about “America’s war on sex.” (In fact, Dr. Klein calls the PP/Komen debacle part of the war on sex here.) I am increasingly convinced that the “War on women” and the “war on sex” are two sides of the same coin. You can’t go after one without simultaneously demonizing the other, and I think resolution will require looking at both.
This war on women (or war on sex, if you prefer,) is basically one part of the exact thing feminist sexologist Dr. Leonore Tiefer is talking about in her work when she says we need to examine the social & cultural forces that negatively impact women’s sexuality and thus lead to sexual problems. There’s a lot more to the social construction model of women’s sexuality (you had to have been there,) but the war on women is part of it.
Remember: The social construction model of sex means that what we “Know” about sex isn’t set in stone – our understanding of sex & sexuality is shaped by our social contexts. Sex doesn’t have an inherent meaning so much as it has whatever meaning you, me, and our peers say it has. Get enough people saying the same thing about sex, women, whatever, and you get a big feedback loop that just feeds itself. By the way – there’s already a feedback loop.
I tend to criticize Dr. Tiefer’s work in particular since she’s recognized as a feminist leader in the social construction model of women’s sexuality and sexual dysfunction, yet her work still can’t be a panacea for all the sexual problems.
You don’t ingest the war on women – an idea, a description, a series of events – like a poison from a tangible cup. It’s a cumulative process, where the little things pile up and subtly alter your opinions & perceptions. In other words, you internalize the negative beliefs you’re constantly exposed to. So credit where credit is due – we’re seeing the social construction model of sex in motion before our very eyes. The war makes it harder to express & find what you want, to the point where if your desires don’t match up with what enough other people say is right, you can be subjected to violence (TRIGGER WARNING).
Social construction has limits and problems of its own. It cannot explain away and treat all the sexual problems. My vulvodynia & vaginismus didn’t spring up in response to any particular slight. Even if this war on women ended tomorrow, I’d still have physical problems lurking in my body. Medical science would still be confounded by my case. Kyriarchy would still be alive & well so we’d still be dealing with other kinds of prejudices & phobias. But it’s there.
I wish I could say that “No one wins when there’s a war against women going on,” but obviously someone’s coming out ahead or else this whole mess would never have happened. Someone out there – a few, elite powerful leaders maybe – must be gaining power and/or money off of it. There are a lot of casualties in this cold war; patriarchy hurts men, too. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like the deck is stacked against the ladies in particular.
I think the war on women goes something like this:
- There’s cultural pressure for women to remain “Pure,” sexually,
- So if you have sexual experience, if you have been raped, or are merely perceived as “Impure,” you have to take shit from surprisingly angry people about the fact that you may or may not have had sexual activity (Slut shaming.)
- Simultaneously, there’s cultural pressure for men to have sex with women – the more, the better.
- Yet paradoxically, this pressure to have sex with women exists even though there’s misogyny in the first place!
It gets worse: that’s not just pressure to perform sexually… Some folks think they are genuinely entitled to have sex with the very women they loathe so much. This is what social justice advocates are referring to when they use the term, “Rape culture.” Rape culture supports and even encourages ideas like: Violence and sex go together naturally. Women aren’t supposed to want sex and if a woman is raped, she must have done something to provoke it. Men can’t be raped and it’s funny when they are. I’m sorry to say, there are literally countless examples of Rape Culture. It is a culture in which rape is allowed to happen – in where it’s justified, or it must be made-up, or not that big of a deal, or what did you expect? Rape culture is the culture in which even I cannot distinguish between statements made by rapists and statements published in a lad magazine. I don’t know what the bigger backdrop is; the war on women, the war on sex, or rape culture, but they’re all going on at the same time in the same spaces, and I think it goes something like this:
- Meanwhile, for the most part culture doesn’t know what to do with folks who don’t fit well in a gender binary – leading to unnecessary & malicious policing.
- “Sex” means, “Penis-in-vagina,” = Intercourse.
- “Penis-in-vagina” = 2 cisgender, heterosexual partners, so that pretty much wipes out queer relationships.
- PIV intercourse has its own risks – notably, infections and potentially fatal diseases and pregnancy.
- The responsibility for pregnancy prevention tends to fall on women in cis, het relationships – after all there are still only 2 kinds of birth control available to sexually active men (condoms & vasectomy.)
That’s about where the war on women steps in. Women are expected to be the ones to prevent pregnancy, and when women do have children, childrearing responsibilities still disproportionately fall on women. That makes it hard to bring up a baby and improve your career at the same time (and savings, and thus later on, your social security/retirement income.) The war makes it even harder to obtain contraception and family planning services.
I could just leave it at that, but this is a sexual dysfunction blog and there’s additional stuff that pertains to people with sexual dysfunctions.
- Sex – that is, intercourse as defined above – isn’t so easy to pull off if you’ve got some form of sexual dysfunction.
- If that’s the case, then you get to take on the additional pressure of not conforming to the problematic gender dynamics culture set up for you to adhere to in the first place!
- You can’t perform your role as “Nature” (not necessarily) intended.
- Not to mention the part where folks who aren’t het can also develop sexual dysfunctions.
This is the environment in which the medical model of sex thrives. Dr. Tiefer wrote extensively about this – how, in a setting where there’s so much sexual pressure and cultural rigidity around sex, marketers for drug companies can easily exploit people with sexual problems & insecurities. (I think the US’s lack of public healthcare contributes as well.) She’s explicitly anti-medical model though, whereas I recognize that some people still have a need for medical assistance even when there’s social forces whirling around. The marketing may make it look like medicine is easy to obtain, easy to use, and easy to get results – but in reality, it’s not so easy.
Anyway, the war on women sounds very limiting, right? But enough people just don’t see it that way, and are willing to serve as foot soldiers. There’s enough folks within the US who (Publicly) are so heavily invested in holding up this “One true way” of sexuality that they grew up with, so that it fucks up life for all the rest of us. So the war goes on:
- We weren’t raised in a vacuum. You might have been able to buck some of the cultural pressure and expand your definition of sex as you grew up. But pretty much everyone has been stewing in it for a long time…
- …Some people are just more heavily invested in upholding the dominant cultural sexual narratives than others.
So I’m seeing a lot of sexual double standards in place that make it a lot harder to enjoy sex and to, you know, live. For me, anyway; maybe you’re still totally cool… But the war on women creates a hostile environment in which to discuss and engage in sex. If I get hurt or in trouble, I may not be able to get help – something I’m sure some of you already experienced first-hand.
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