The war on female sexuality: Is globalization to blame?

From New Dehli to the war on women here, sexual freedom has sparked a global conflict. An expert explains why

Topics: Sex, Gender, Gender Roles, Editor's Picks,

The war on female sexuality: Is globalization to blame? (Credit: Nano Calvo /

Women’s bodies have become a global battlefield. The brutal New Delhi gang rape case, and the fierce protests it sparked, is just one example. From education of Afghan schoolgirls to veiling in France, female sexuality and freedom has come to symbolize a global conflict “over the nature of the self,” argues David Jacobson, a University of South Florida sociologist, in “Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict,” which comes out later this month. It’s chiefly an ideological divide of “honor” versus “self-possession” — or, as he puts it in the book, “who owns and control’s one’s body, especially when it comes to women: is it the individual herself or the community, through enforced practices of honor, virginity, veiling, and marriage?”

What Jacobson does beautifully in his accessibly academic book is differentiate between politicized Islamist patriarchy and “the broader Muslim community,” the former being “a core expression of a deeper global fissure,” he explains. “In an honor society, patriarchal and tribal traditions dictate that a woman’s body belongs to and serves the community. … An interest-based society privileges self-determination, the sovereignty of the individual over her body, and ownership of one’s own capital, be it economic, cultural, or social.” As globalization improves the status of many women, it also incites a ferocious backlash against them.

The book offers hints on how to mitigate this divide not only in global conflicts, but also domestic battles over everything from birth control to prostitution. Jacobson spoke to Salon from his office in Florida about virginity, SlutWalks and even monogamy.

Why is female sexuality at the heart of some of our most significant global conflicts?

It’s extraordinary. What we’ve seen in Delhi recently is a horrifying symptom of this broader global phenomenon. The more patriarchal a society, the more vicious the backlash to the integration of women, not just in the labor market and education but to the growing autonomy of women in areas from fashion to consumerism to marriage. I think what’s happening is that women’s sexuality and women’s status has really become the hinge of two very different visions of society and visions of morality. What we’ve seen in recent decades is that women have been making these extraordinary strides in the aggregate. As a consequence, women’s sexuality has become this battleground and this backlash of the most patriarchal elements that control it. We can see women’s progress in these areas is dramatic, but it’s much more muted in the most patriarchal corners of the world from Southeast Asia, including India, down through the Middle East to North Africa. India’s an interesting case because, as has been seen in Delhi, it captures both the modern India and the patriarchal India, which get juxtaposed in what we’ve witnessed in these last weeks.

There’s a piece of this that’s something of an age-old phenomenon, right? Women’s bodies as sites of conflict and incitements for war?

Absolutely. If you go through conflict and war specifically, over time the issue of gender has been very significant. In the one sense, war has primarily been fought by men and the imagery of war has been very masculine. We use the language of the “rape” of cities, which also, of course, involves a lot of literal rape as well.

What has changed is where beliefs about women’s sexuality and status are so disparate between clashing parties. Conflict’s always been gendered in the ways you were alluding to, but I think it’s coming to the forefront in a way we have not seen historically. If we look at conflict in the past, say, for example, in Germany and France battling it out in the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, there was a rough consistency across the societies about the status of women and women’s sexuality.

Where does this honor-based view of female sexuality come from?

Well, on the one side, we have societies in which patriarchal families and communities are seeking to control women through practices such as enforced virginity before marriage, demands that they take on a particular familial role, their requirements for a specific form of dress, even physical segregation. These are honor societies where gender and sex are considered the primary social indicator of status. Honor lies in man’s fighting prowess in these often tribal societies, and this included the protection of “his woman,” and a woman’s honor lies in guarding her chastity before marriage and begetting children for her husband should she marry. It’s an extraordinarily different sense of the body.

On the patriarchal side, there’s this idea of the body belonging to the community. Virginity is an interesting example of this because the woman is seen as a marker of family boundaries, a symbol of the community. She’s viewed as both the source of the literal, as well as, in the more figurative sense, the source of the continuity of the community. That sounds like a privileged status, but in fact what evolves from that is the notion that she needs to be under the control of men — of fathers, of husbands, of brothers. The stress on virginity reflects the imperatives of the larger society: promising society’s continuity through marriage and children. So the woman’s consent is irrelevant, since her purpose transcends herself. So we see prohibitions of women going out in public unaccompanied by men to this very day, notably in much of the Middle East and North Africa. These are ways of a family ensuring her honor.

What’s fascinating in the issue of rape is that even something so horrendous gets defined in rather different prisms. Whereas rape to us is very clear — it’s an extreme violation of a woman that obviously by definition involves absence of consent — in highly patriarchal, traditional contexts, rape is really a subset of adultery. The rape is the violation not of the woman but of another man’s ownership of that woman. We see this play out in India and repeatedly across these very patriarchal parts of the world. There is this atrocious notion that a woman who’s raped is a) dishonored and b) that she can to some extent save her honor by marrying the rapist.

For many individuals across the world today the other side of it is that the woman controls her own body. She controls the right to sell her labor power, to sell her intellect on the job market, to go to school or university, to choose whom she shall marry. So you have this principle of honor on the one side and self-determination on the other.

You make a point of making a distinction between how women’s bodies are viewed in patriarchal, honor-based societies and by Muslim culture as a whole. What are those key differences?

We need to make a distinction from the cultural aspect of the backlash and the political backlash. When we talk of the Islamist movement, in particular the militant Islamist movements, the backlash shifts from purely being cultural to including the political. The institutions that are viewed as leading to women’s progress — progress in your terms and my terms — become targets of attack, and the West, broadly speaking, is viewed as a major source of this corruption. Anything that’s identified with the West — churches, obviously the United States, nightclubs and the like — become viewed as corrupt and viewed as targets of attack.

We have to be careful to make a distinction between cultural backlash, which cuts across all kinds of communities, all kinds of religions, and then the Islamist movement, which is a more particular form of backlash that takes on a political form.

We see vaguely related tensions between “honor” and “self-determination” in Western cultures, too, right — take, just for one example, the SlutWalks?

You hit the nail on the head. The SlutWalks is a very interesting example of that. That tension plays out between social conservatives and liberals in this country and elsewhere in the Western world. If we look at the history of the West and the world at large, these highly patriarchal societies are the norm. We go back to 15th, 14th century Europe and, of course, there’s quite extreme levels of patriarchy. That thread is historically deep within Western societies. It doesn’t completely go away, obviously, but the conservative side of things gets much more diluted with time. It does come down to issues of the body and what one’s commitments should be, and it comes around on discussion about different approaches to prostitution, different views on pornography and the like. It is absolutely there, but it’s a more modest form than what we see on a global level.

Why, exactly, has the West moved away from that patriarchal notion of female honor?

If you go back and look at the history, particularly in Europe, and look how things developed in that context, it is very patchwork. We have the Protestant reformation, which breaks down the church. There’s still obviously a lot of conservatism within those Protestant movements but the importance of the individual gets to be increasingly stressed. Quite quickly, the Dutch begin to show a more liberal orientation to these issues. Really, from the 1600s you begin to see the Dutch women have more independence, willing to be seen in public, show cleavage. There’s the sense of owning the body, and also the rights of capitalism. It leads to an interest in autobiography for the first time in the case of the Dutch; they put stress on what we call the psychology of the inner life. An interest that follows from that is trying to figure out who you are; the idea of the authentic self is beginning to emerge. Women speak in candid and even crude terms. Couples openly kiss in public. And visitors to the Netherlands at the time are utterly struck and start reporting it to other parts of Europe.

It’s not a big leap from that idea of using my body in economic terms to using it in social terms for marriage, for dating, et cetera. In a way, that debate never goes away, it just keeps expanding, like our conversations around marriage today and the idea of monogamy. There are those who support monogamy and those who contest it, and there’s a same kind of thread. The contesting of monogamy is in some senses that it limits your choice, and whatever side one falls on in that debate, it plays to the same tension. Anyway, it really begins to expand after World War II, where the value of virginity before marriage drops precipitously, for example.

Are those values of “honor” and “self-determination” at all reconcilable? What can we learn from zooming in on the role women play in these global conflicts about the way forward?

If you look across the global landscape today, the role women are beginning to play, and the strides they are making in these various areas from economic to education to shifts in fashion and the like, the flip side of that is that men in aggregate in parts of the world are beginning to fall behind. Growing alcoholism, dying at younger ages in places like Russia, micro-economic loans in countries as different as Bangladesh and Ghana are limited to women because they are on average more responsible in using those loans. So, there’s a dynamic we’re going to have to pay much more attention to, not just the strides women are making but some of the problems emerging in terms of men and in some sense a crisis of masculinity we see playing out.

That is very encouraging on one level, given the progress of women, but it’s also generating these concerns and we have to begin thinking how they play out in terms of men. At the same time, the resistance, the patriarchal backlash we’ve been talking about, is very, very deep in regions from North Africa to the Middle East to parts of South Asia. These challenges aren’t simply political but deeply cultural. Pushing hard in terms of women’s rights can sometimes generate that backlash, so we have to think of subtle and nuanced ways of tackling this problem.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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