Faye Rozario, Staff Writer
One of the key tenets of modern feminism is the idea of sexual empowerment. It is a catalyst for freedom of choice, producing outcomes such as the reclamation of sexuality for victims of assault, the gradual normalization of sex work, and a growing acceptance towards displays of nudity and promiscuity. Though the sexual empowerment of women seems at face value to be a step forward, there is a dangerous consequence of the movement that hinders rather than advances the feminist cause. That consequence is, namely, the phenomena of sexual empowerment being taken as an invitation for men to objectify and degrade women.
Consider some of misogyny’s classics: women showing skin being told they are asking to be propositioned and harassed, comments under social media posts mocking women for revealing their bodies when ‘views are getting low’, the blatant disrespect of women who have or have had multiple sexual partners. These are common and indisputable examples of women embracing their sexuality and bodies openly, only to have their actions weaponized by the opposite sex. In this age of increasing conversation around sexual freedom, the patriarchy is reforming itself to allow for women’s sexuality, but in a way that is still inherently beneficial to men.
Chances are, if a woman exposes her cleavage in a low-cut top or twerks on a public platform, somewhere and somehow a man is going to enjoy it. That isn’t to say that men feeling or displaying sexual interest in women is wholly negative – that would be hypocritically counterintuitive to the overall goal of sexual liberation. Rather than the attraction to women itself, the issue is the patriarchal entitlement to which it is often attached. If a woman is partaking in the aforementioned behaviour, there is no way to know that she is doing so to appeal to men unless she explicitly confirms it. Yet men—having been conditioned to consider physical attractiveness as the most significant part of a woman’s identity—can in many cases think that there is no alternative purpose for women exhibiting those behaviours other than as sexual objects. This is because, according to an NBC News interview with Cornell University philosophy professor Kate Manne, society has created a moral ideology that positions women as existing for the sole purpose of supplying the goods to which it is believed men are entitled.
Yes, sex is one of those goods. Women exhibiting themselves in an open and sexual manner, though an obvious right, still plays into this narrative. Because if sex need be shown, then it is performance, and if a performance needs an audience, then patriarchy is sitting in the front row. And so it is unsurprising that sexual empowerment has done very little to curb real-world manifestations of this twisted paradigm. 10% of women versus 1.4% of men have experienced sexual coercion in their lifetime. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that from 2009 to 2013, there was a 17% increase in police-reported sexual assault of women. Even now, in 2021, sexual assault against women is still the only violent crime which’s rates are not declining. This speaks volumes of the imbalanced power structures that exist between men and women. Sex is perceived as an obvious expectation, rather than a specific and intimate act that differs between circumstances. Every woman is, now more than ever, a target for objectification, hypersexualisation, and coercion. But if it is sexuality that empowers us, that must be what we want…right?
Highlighting this tension may seem like an argument for sexual repression. It is anything but. Sexual empowerment is a necessary step to the liberation of women, but one that the current state of our patriarchal society is not yet capable of fully realizing. Should women be able to reclaim their sexuality for themselves? Absolutely. Is this completely possible if men are still able to appropriate that empowerment for their own pleasure, due to them having not been taught to personify women that they find attractive? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Unless society’s view of women is repositioned, our sexual empowerment will remain surface level and detached from our liberation. As it is understood and perceived currently, prey to the entitlement of men, sexuality a facet of womanhood inextricably bogged down in patriarchy.
There is no way to stop the direction of sexual freedom as it is progressing now. The most that can be done is for women to continue to seek empowerment on their own terms, while recognizing that the patriarchy is watching and gaining. That collateral effect will diminish over time, but only insofar as the onus is put on men to view women not as sexual objects for their own entertainment, but first and foremost as actual human beings worthy of respect. It is only through systemic redefinition of the nature of sexuality that women will be able to truly enjoy it for themselves, and not merely as a display for the oppressors. Until then, we walk the thin line that separates sexual empowerment and liberation. Only the smallest shift is needed to push us over onto the other side.