KAMPALA – I once heard this story about Ugandan relationships. It is the task of the woman to walk the thin line between submitting her sexuality to her man and employing it herself. A Ugandan woman, was said, does not say “yes” to sex, but cannot say “no” either. Saying “yes” would take away the initiative of the man while saying “no” would be to refuse his advances and make his sexual urges seem *unnatural*. At the same time, she should also employ her sexuality to be considered attractive, and considering how some women dress here in Uganda, they most certainly engage in their sexuality.
To me, this story seemed rapey. You cannot say “yes”, but “no” is also not an acceptable answer. The woman in this scenario is reduced to a passive participant. A subject without agency. It reminded me of the multitude of articles about rape, sexual harassment, and sexism in Western universities and clubs that can be found on so many news websites in the last two years or so (read here, there, and here again). I do not condone the use of the word “rape culture” because of its connotations and lack of nuance, however, what happens on these campuses could be considered the result of a rape culture. The practices of providing alcohol as to cause a temporary deficiency in judgment (i.e. getting girls drunk so you can fuck ’em) are abominable. Apparently it is so bad now that we have to teach adolescents not to rape or harass.
Stating this would be preaching to a rather large choir since most people would object to these behavioural strains of gender relations, so let’s move on. A popular argument of these so-called men’s right activists, or anti-feminists is that women choose to be objectified. The extremities of this line of argumentation leads us on the path of “she should not have dressed so provocatively” or “she was probably asking for it”. However, the soft version of those arguments consists of statements like: “women choose to be objectified”. After all, look at those models or actresses who voluntarily objectify themselves by doing what they do, or at all the effort and time women invest in their appearance, does anyone have a right to complain about objectification (which is perceived as an accusing finger pointed at men, because they are the ones that do the objectifying, aren’t they?) if they engage in it themselves?
Consequently, the counter-argument would be agency. Being objectified is not a choice, unless you explicitly chose to be. The paradox of being say, a pornstar is that your person will be objectified by your (male) audience, but your agency might be your own since it was you who decided to be in this subject position in the first place. Performing your sexuality in such a way may be conceived as liberative rather than repressive. On the other hand, the performance is subjected to the lusts of male sexuality, and porno tends to be misogynistic and submit the woman during the sexual acts in the videos. Her audience does not only objectify her, but her sex partner does also.
Moving within the parameters of repressive sexuality and a submissive power position, sort of “making the best out of it”, or “rowing with the peddles you have” as we say in Dutch, is called bargaining with the patriarch. In exchange for particular favours, benefits, or advantages, women can engage in the system without fundamentally challenging it. A woman who “chooses” to be objectified is a perfect example of such a bargain. By doing so, she loses her ability to completely deflect. Lisa Wade wrote a fantastic analysis on patriarchical bargaining in the music industry wherein she explains how the exploitations of performers like Miley Cyrus are a strategy which, within our patriarchical system, rewards these women the most. By showing her body and engaging in her sexuality in this specific way, she [Miley Cyrus] is rewarded with fame, glory, and possibly substantial earnings.
I suppose there could be a moral judgment made here. My question is rather whether this would be really conducive. Would it be productive to judge women who *gave up* and function within a system that systemetically works against them in exchange for a limited freedom and reward that will never be fully equal to the movement space men have. The alternative here is total rejection of a patriarchical system that has deep roots in our (Western) culture, a gesture that will always be met with great resistance.
There are very few people who are willing and fearless enough to reject an existing and wholesome social system like patriarchy completely. Most accept their subject position in it, and with that acceptance comes the teeth-grinding consent to, say, objectification, sexual harassment, wolf-whistling, ass-grabbing, or the glass ceiling. Being a woman is being the second sex, as de Beauvoir once pointed out, and bargaining with the patriarch is to accept that as a social fact.
Before we judge too harshly, let me draw a parallel argument for you. We forego our moral self by voluntarily participating in a consumption-driven capitalist system that structurally increases socio-economical inequalities and exploits those in a weaker power position. It’s an ugly truth, but even those who are seemingly aware of it (like myself) are not willing to make the sacrifice of rejecting the system by stepping out of it. Besides the fact it would be extremely hard to do so, we would have to give up most luxuries we have gotten so used to. I guess we are bargaining with the capitalist, or the oligarch.
I do not think that the case of feminism is as hopeless as the case of capitalism is. Our consumerism is almost inescapable, patriarchy is less so (although I am most certainly not underestimating its cultural footprint). What helps is the fact that approximately 50% of the individuals functioning within it happen to be women who at least theoretically have a political, socio- cultural- voice that can prove to be very strong, even if it is just in numbers. But before we go off and chase our own tails, let us take a closer look at gender relations and feminism, and in what direction we should focus our efforts.