At last the habitual sexual predation of Western elite males upon female employees is being highlighted internationally in film, media and politics. Nevertheless, I suggest these current ‘revelations’ are just the tip of a huge patrifocal iceberg of men globally behaving badly toward women; not to mention to each other. In terms of men behaving badly toward women, we can also expect routine sexual harassment and predation to be perpetrated by elite males within other areas such as industry, commerce and finance. Nor should we omit their male counterparts in public, private and legal institutions, including the many charities. In fact it would be more accurate to conclude that sexism, sexual harassment and sexual predation occur in all walks of life – not just among the elite. It is everywhere!
Although not originating in the modern era, sexism and sexual predation is nevertheless an almost universal aspect of modern capitalist societies. Furthermore, as the recent spate of revelations indicate, under the capitalist mode of production, where economic, social and political power has broadly and exponentially accumulated among men, opportunities for sexual predation are multiplied and along with this, the power to obscure, hide, deny or silence victims is much greater. Women thinking of speaking out against powerful, or even less-powerful, but nonetheless influential, men, are compelled by their circumstances to consider the consequences of revealing such inappropriate sexual behaviour. Jobs, careers and even long term relationships can be damaged or even ended by speaking such truth to power. And of course peoples lives have frequently been ruined by powerful offenders. Some of the past and present elite administered ‘gagging contracts’ and ‘punishments’ have been revealed by recent public disclosures, but we may never know more than a fraction of the events and imposed silences which have occurred.
Historic roots and contemporary manifestations.
The recent exposures of elite males, merely confirms what many (if not most) citizens have witnessed or at least suspected in their various areas of employment or among their national and local communities. Sexual predation by men against women is not only widespread but also has a long tap-root in history. Whether, the historical records of the land and resource grabbing battles of the ancient Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires are considered, it is not hard to find examples of male harassment, rape and the enslavement of women being granted to the victors and consequently women ‘taken’ as trophies of male aggression. However, the main conduit connecting those past male attitudes to women to present attitudes have been the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the religious ideological conduit of religious inspired patriarchy: see for example; (‘Religion versus Women’s Rights’; ‘God and Gender’ and ‘The shooting of Malala Yousafzai’; among others). Here I will just provide a flavour of the poisonous attitude to women contained within the so-called sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“And Moses said………Now therefore kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman who has known man by laying with him....But all the female children who have not known man by lying with him, keep them alive for yourselves.” (Old Testament. Numbers 31. verses 15, 17 and 18.)
“Let the woman learn in silence and all subjection” (1 Timothy 2 v 11) “...they are to be under obedience as it is said in the law..” (New Testament 1 Corinthians 14 v 34)
“Good women are obedient…As for those from whom you fear disobedience….beat them.” (Surah 4: 34) “Women are your fields: go then, into your fields as you please. (Qur’an Surah 2: 223)
These extracts indicate the historical roots and predatory sexual nature of patriarchal physical and mental control of women in their monotheistic ideological form. By the way; keeping the child virgins for yourself; subjecting females to obedience; and euphemisms for penetrating women whenever men want to; are not the only oppressive examples within these three scriptures. As already noted, it is this Abrahamic religious male covenant which has been the dominant means of conveying the ideas and practices of domestic, social and sexual subservience of women to men from antiquity to our modern global cultures.
Not one of these three male-dominated religions has expurgated or publicly denounced the numerous instances of misogyny, discrimination and oppressive sexual behaviour written into their so-called ‘holy’ texts. And yet they are also still granted ‘official’ status in country after country. The expectation, and in some cases the demand, (embodied in these dominant religions of the near east and west), that women should be subservient and readily available to men for sexual and domestic services has monopolised cultural norms throughout the middle ages and regrettably lives on in the 21st century. Is it not the case that women still need refuges to escape from men who try to beat them into submission?
The validity of the above assertions is also evidenced by the continuing struggle for equal representation and equal pay in industry, commerce, finance, sport, education, health, legal, political, trade union and state institutions. So not surprisingly, these are the very arenas where they are also frequent victims of sexist remarks, inappropriate groping and sexual predation. All this is despite the fact that in the 20th century a Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in the USA and Europe, which challenged many, if not all the cultural and ideological assumptions of modern patrifocal societies. Yet these three religions and their scriptures continue to be held up by most elite males as valid institutions and reliable texts we should all follow on our journey through life. And when you consider what these texts advocate it is not hard to see why so many do so.
For this reason, the challenge to patriarchy initiated by the Feminist Movement in the mid- 20th century needs to be taken up again – and not just by women.
Women’s Liberation and Feminist thinking.
Those who are appalled by the recent revelations of sexual predation may be interested to learn that an important catalyst to the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 20th century came from a similar experience of women in male dominated left-wing led liberation struggles of the 1960s and 70s. Although this initially took place in the USA, it was quickly followed by women in Europe, but it was Feminist women in the USA who led the way – this time. There they had experienced sexual harassment, sexual predation and also being ‘used’ in other menial ways in the various campus, anti-war and civil rights struggles. A few, fed up and disillusioned by this experience, spoke out and quickly broke out of this left leaning patrifocal straight-jacket. In doing so their actions struck a chord with many other women, who joined the movement.
From that moment two important developments took place. The first was that women began to form women only groups in order to discuss and decide what they should do with regard to a range of problems they faced. Second, in a few places, mainly academia, an extremely thorough examination of male chauvinist attitudes and male-stream thinking began. [For a review of these developments see ’20th century Feminist Frameworks’ on this blog]. Both these developments were very threatening to men and many men reacted negatively. In many places Feminists were ridiculed, trivialised or simply ignored. Nevertheless, they continued to exist and produced many serious critiques, numerous successful campaigns and some helpful guidelines.
Among the latter was a suggestion that has relevance to the main subject of this article – inappropriate sexual advances between people, particularly those from men to women. It was the following: In the absence of real equality, if men really wished to be sure that they were not utilising their positions of absolute or relative power differential over women they should NEVER initiate any sexual advances to women to whom they are attracted. Instead, they should wait for an unequivocal indication or invitation from the woman. Even when this happened it was essential for men to make sure, as far as possible, that this was a genuine attraction and invitation and not the result of some major or minor power differential. Those of us who took that advice to heart, may have given an impression of disinterest at times and missed some of the rare opportunities that may have presented themselves but at least when relationships did blossom it was certain to be by mutual consent and for mutual benefit.
Biological urges, cultural preferences and social constraints.
It is clear that in species which reproduce sexually, there is built into both genders a pleasure component which make sensual and sexual activity (potentially) a very desirable interaction. The human species is no different in that physical regard but humanity has evolved cultural preferences and social constraints which in general should mediate and even moderate the nature of this interaction between two people. So on the evolutionary base line of mutual sexual pleasure (with procreation as result) has been built a complex of emotional, cultural and social factors, which serve to modify, mediate or even curb the urges emanating from that evolutionary procreative base line. Emotions such as love and tenderness, along with behavioural characteristics such as kindness, altruism and reciprocity enter into the relationship between human beings, particularly between partners within sexual relationships.
It is the complex package of emotional and behavioural characteristics which have been largely ignored or cast aside by men who sexually harass, inappropriately touch and otherwise bypass the requirement of mutual consent. The ultimate ditching of all humane sentiments with regard to sexual relations, is of course the moral and criminal act of rape. The latter is something which occurs on a massive scale during wars. In my opinion this condemnation should extend to any act of forced penetration (rape) whether outside of marriage and partnership or within it. However, at this point I suggest it is important we ask ourselves how and why these emotional and social requirements (restraints) are so often set aside, particularly by elite males.
It is here that the previously noted differential economic and social power structures between men and women come into play. The emotional and social norms, are flouted, set aside or completely ignored, because this can be done with impunity. The power structures in general, allow the perpetrators to silence, cover up or transfer blame away from themselves – if – the transgression comes to light. And in such cases, the other individuals in the same (and complimentary) power structures generally collude and accept the perpetrators version of events, for they too rely on or benefit from those structures and differentials. If the power structures didn’t exist then these habitual acts of sexual harassment and predation along with their ‘cover-up’ would be less likely to occur. Nevertheless, that would still leave a residual problem of modern male patterned sexuality.
Objectification, Fixation and Conquest.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s a paper entitled ‘The Socialised Penis’ was circulated among some men. I think the author was named Jack Littewska or something similar. Sadly I cannot remember it accurately. However, in it he did describe the general socialisation process of 20th century male sexuality which rang a bell (some of us discussed it in a men’s group) and goes some way to identify another element of men behaving badly – at least in terms of sexual relations. He noted that during the first stirring of interest in sexual matters for most men in modernity, the curiosity about the female form was frustrated by the taboos concerning nudity and sex.
Beyond a certain age the only naked body most people actually saw (until much later) was their own. Any witnessed pleasurable fondling of the penis or clitoris was invariably met by adults with shock, embarrassment and censure. Young people were supposed to ignore, deny or even feel ashamed about this aspect of the biology of their young developing bodies. And if they were not, no effort was spared to make them feel so. At best they were told it is very naughty, or ‘dirty’ to touch themselves, at worst that it will make them go blind or lead to mental disorders (Baden Powell). At a wider level, sex outside of the matrimonial contract was declared abnormal, dangerous and disgusting. At least that was the message being transmitted via cultures dominated by religion. Something I guess which is the experience of both genders growing up and continues in the 21st century.
For many boys and young men, therefore, the curiosity concerning the female naked form was mainly satisfied by photographic images in magazines which from time to time were passed around discretely. When these images of naked women began to arouse erections in boys or young men then it was obvious that something was being skewed. It wasn’t a real person stimulating that arousal and climax, but a passive image – a virtual object. The sexual Objectification of women by (and for) young men had begun. This Objectification of the female form was also being amplified by Film, Newspapers, Advertising and Magazines, etc. In the mid to late 20th century, the Objectification of femininity in the west had become a cultural norm.
Top shelf magazines would have pages and pages of photographs of different women in different poses which would allow, many possibilities for arousal and climatic satisfaction to be achieved. But notably without any need for consent, any problem of refusal or any need to satisfy a partner. A different image (or more) each day could be used for such satisfaction or gratification if ones stamina would allow. Young men sexually socialised in this way were teaching themselves and their peers that their own un-negotiated sexual needs were what mattered. Does that ring any bells?
The women and girls in these magazines and books of photographs were all of a certain size and shape conforming (within narrow limits) to the 20th century culturally perceived parameters of female beauty. Indeed, during the time I speak of there was little or no fast-food, processed food or couch potato induced obesity, so the photographic images of women were not very far from the reality of the bathing costumed women one saw on holiday. Nevertheless, alongside the sexual arousal and climatic satisfaction by passive images – often explicitly posed – arose the idea of the perfect female form. The Objectification process was now reinforced by multiple images of passive and always available ideal forms – ones ultimately to be sought in real life.
After a prolonged period of such image objectification there tended to be added an element of Fixation as one or other element, breasts, buttocks, vaginas (generally the three dominant fixations because previously hidden and rarely seen) or even thighs or arms were viewed as particularly arousing. None of this, despite its out-of-sight subterranean existence, was considered a serious problem. Even some mum’s became used to turning a blind eye to erotic magazines ‘hidden’ away. However, the stages of Objectification and Fixation didn’t necessarily end the secretive process of sexually socialising the male penis and the brain. A possible, and in some cases a probable, later third phase after Objectification and Fixation was described by the above noted author as Conquest.
Conquest was the term for the real world application by men of the now internalised virtual world of female Objectification, Fixation and orgasm. The acquisition of a real world substitute for the passive, willing partner image, which was always available for sexual satisfaction and who could be put aside when another attractive female was spotted on another page of life’s unfolding story, became an ambition for many men. However, once a real life substitute for any of the now internalised ideal female forms and positions was located, the process of sexual satisfaction then involved an active element whose resistance, initial or otherwise, had to be overcome by Conquest. The Conquest stage could be achieved by various means, stealth, bribes, special pleading, seductive persuasion, intoxication, declarations of love and if these failed using any advantages of strength to force compliance. NB: for some men the subsequent act of real coitus itself often occurred whilst having a virtual fantasy image in mind, rather than reality. How skewed was (is) that? Any more bells ringing?
During and in the aftermath of the Women’s Liberation Movement it became possible for men – who bothered to seriously listen to Feminists – to reject the model of male behaviour and thinking handed down by generations of religious zealots and related patriarchal male-chauvinist bigots. It was also possible to reprogramme the previous objectified relationship between sexual arousal and the subject with which it was aroused. Recognising women as active equals, with ideas, emotions and experiences which themselves were a source of attraction or in some cases, repulsion, regardless of whether their bodies conformed to some previously idealised requirement became possible. It also became possible for men sexually socialised in the previously noted way to join those men who had escaped this problematic process. But of course, this does not mean this reprogramming happened generally among men, for there were counteracting tendencies and ideologies, which are obviously still in existence and still need to be overcome.
I suggest that it is obvious from all I have written above (and in the other articles mentioned) that the three Abrahamic religions are conveyors and purveyors of patriarchal and patrifocal attitudes which are given an imagined higher-power authorisation for the social and sexual subjection of women to men. As long as these ideologies are supported by elites and a majority of citizens, then these ideas and attitudes to women will continue, albeit they may ebb and flow with stronger or weaker currents from time to time. It is also obvious, I suggest, that as long as any economic mode of production, such as the present capitalist based one, creates huge differences in power and wealth and promotes the parallel subjection and objectification of women, then elite and general sexual harassment and predation will continue along with attempts to cover them up.
However, until such time as both institutions (religion and capitalism) are discarded as being outmoded and detrimental forms of human economic and intellectual activity, there is still much we can do. Exposures, of sexual predation and cover-ups should continue and any instances of such behaviour should be publicly aired. This should also be the case among the contemporary left for sexism and sexual predation still exists there as it did when it stimulated the Feminist rejection of it in the mid to late 20th century. [For its recent existence in a so-called revolutionary anti-capitalist group See ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’ on this blog, and the book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-capitalist Struggle’ linked in the About section.]
I again contend that humanity needs a new set of ideas more in keeping with reality as it is emerging. That is to say; a set of ideas, and practices not fixed, like those in religions and the capitalist mode of production, and also not based upon biological or ideological prejudices. A set of ideas and practices that are not indifferent to the fate of the planet and all its inhabitants whilst being truly humane and truly revolutionary in wanting to transforming the planet into something fit for a species which classifies itself as wise. I suggest Revolutionary-Humanist ideas offer such a possibility. To sceptics I will suggest a line or two from the John Lennon song ‘Imagine’;
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you will join us, and the world will live as one.”
R. Ratcliffe (December 2017)