The late Golda Meir tells a great story in her autobiography from the days when she was the only female member of the Israeli cabinet. A serial rapist was wreaking havoc in Tel Aviv and the cabinet was discussing what should be done about it. Somebody suggested that a curfew might be a good idea. Keeping women and girls inside and off the streets after 9pm, he argued, would be a good way to protect them. Golda responded by agreeing that a curfew was a great idea, but as it was clearly a man doing the raping, surely it should be imposed on men and boys? There was a deathly hush amongst her male colleagues and then it was hastily decided that a curfew was not the way to go.
What Golda exposed was something that has been commonplace for millennia; the expectation that women must take responsibility for male sexual responses and behaviour by curtailing and limiting their own. The passing on of responsibility for male behaviour to women has resulted in women being over-responsible and men under-responsible and so neatly stopped both genders from properly growing up. It has also had the toxic effect of causing female victims of male sexual predators to feel real shame as if something they have done must have caused the attack. Women in some theocratic countries are still routinely imprisoned if they have been raped.
I would also argue that it has had the effect of casting a shadow over women’s ability to enjoy and desire sex. Having been taught for so long that something they have no control over – the shape of their adult bodies – is so dangerous and potentially explosive, they have learned to fear not just male sexuality but their own. When we ask women to damp down male desire, we can’t exactly complain when it has the effect of also damping down their own.
All this springs to mind because sex therapist and author Bettina Arndt wrote this at the weekend, about women getting their boobs out and the effect it has on men:
“And men – well, they are in a total state of confusion. There are cocky, attractive, successful men, alpha males, revelling in this unexpected bounty, boldly eyeing off the assets of women they fancy as their prey.
Sensitive males are wary, not knowing where to look. Afraid of causing offence. And there are angry men, the beta males who lack the looks, the trappings of success to tick these women’s boxes. They know the goodies on display are not for them. These are the men most likely to behave badly, blatantly leering, grabbing and sneering. For them, the whole thing is a tease. They know it and resent it.
The state of play was neatly summed up during the recent SlutWalks, where scantily dressed women took to the streets, proudly proclaiming their right to dress as they wish, in protest over a Canadian cop, who suggested women shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be raped.
Jamie Lauren Keiles, an organiser of SlutWalk Chicago, explained that a half-naked woman as a form of protest is different from a half-naked lady pandering to the male gaze. It’s about ”a woman putting herself out there as a ‘f— you’ as opposed to a ‘f— me’,” Keiles explained. That may be fine in the context of protesting that scantily dressed women aren’t asking to be raped. Of course, there’s never an excuse for sexual violence or for men to paw or harass women.
But when young women stand in front of mirrors on a Saturday night, adjusting their cleavage, seeking ever greater exposure, maybe they need to think more about what they are doing. While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that, like the protesters, the main message sent is about flaunting women’s sexual power.
It’s an ”UP YOURS” gesture of the most provocative kind.”
And I guess that is my real irritation with some of the arguments social commentator Bettina Arndt puts about the way women should respond to men. The latest is a finger-wag in this weekend’s Sun Herald about women who flash their cleavage and then get annoyed when men (Arndt calls them beta men) they are not attracted to also take notice. She calls the flaunting of cleavage an “up yours gesture of the most provocative kind”. Well, maybe, but Arndt is also the author of a book that blames women for starving their husbands of sex. It seems she blames us when we act sexy and then blames us when we don’t.
Flashing their cleavage is one way some women enjoy their body and play with their sexuality. Of course they like the admiration and attention they get but men remain grown ups and are always responsible for their own reactions and behaviour. And the idea that only poor, prick-teased men suffer sexual rejection is absurd. Plain girls, overweight women and those deemed unattractive suffer just as much from being rejected as beta (whatever that means) men do. We have a whole range of abusive terms for unattractive women – dog, slag, bint, fat c***, heifer, slapper, hit with the ugly stick. Many men do not even register the existence of women they don’t deem f**kable.
Sex is complex and powerful but – surely – it should also be fun? I think it will get a lot more fun when both men and women take responsibility for their own sexual reactions, behaviour and pleasure. We all suffer rejection, insecurity and heartbreak. We all have sexual fantasies and desires that we cannot (and sometimes should not) fulfill. As long as we continue to send double messages to women encouraging them to be sexy and then blaming them when they are, and ask women to second guess how men might react to them we make full, frank and open communication – including sexual communication – between the sexes much more difficult than it should be. Literally, we spoil the fun.
Jane Caro is a novelist, Just a Girl author of The Stupid Country and The F Word, writer, feminist, atheist, Gruen Chick, speaker, media tart, wife, mother and stirrer. You can follow her on Twitter here.
So, what do you make of the arguments? Does Bettina have a point, or are we asking too much of women and thinking too little of men?