Mind vs. Body; sex and repression

[Updated] I’ve just read a book by Jack Holland, entitled Misogyny. Holland develops what appears to be a thorough case showing that repression of women stems from influential men’s fear of their own lust. The argument (in something like three parts) goes something like this:

  1. Mind is distinct from and superior to body.
  2. The needs of the body are therefore to be devalued.
  3. Lust is a need of the body.
  4. Therefore, lust is disgusting.
  5. Women arouse lust in men.
  6. Therefore, women are to be demonized.

In this argument, observe how lust is singled out as particularly disgusting. We see no such complaints about hunger, thirst, or the need for sleep. The singling out of sex, or the desire for sex is significant. Gayle Rubin opens her essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” (to be found in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole Vance, no longer in print) writing:

The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.

Rubin’s essay builds on an idea that sexual relationships, particularly stigmatized sexual relationships, are unfairly singled out for suspicion. Sex is bad, therefore lust is bad, therefore, as a number of feminists have wryly observed, women (who arouse lust) are bad. So bad, indeed, that we would rather condemn sex (and women) than “poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation.” And so it goes through the history that Holland lays out, not just in Western civilization but in varying degrees throughout the world.

In Holland’s thesis, it is apparent that the idea that women’s fidelity was important for inheritance of property isn’t so much a cause as an effect. The demands for chastity and “virtue” come not just from those with property but from men in government, religion, and philosophy, people with interests beyond the question of whose son (women’s property rights have historically been severely restricted or nil) inherits which father’s property. The property inheritance issue can therefore be seen as being structured around discrimination rather than supportive of it.

But what Holland doesn’t develop is an answer to the question of why these views of these influential men were accepted and allowed to prevail. If men have needs and women have needs and they can satisfy them cooperatively, making everyone feel better, why should men instead despise women for their own failure to restrain their own lust? Why not simply have sex?

Holland concludes, returning to a theme which appears throughout his book that “[f]rom Plato onwards, it has been the goal of every totalitarian regime to stop women from putting on make-up.” If lust is the problem, then anything that women do which might enhance their attractiveness to men is further evidence of their manipulation for evil. Holland quotes psychologist Nancy Etcoff that “the solution cannot be to give up a realm of pleasure and power that has been with [women] since the beginning of time.”

If I am going to find faults with Holland’s work, it will likely be that he misses nuances. Because while women may use beauty to attract men, this has not often obviously served the cause of their liberation. Faye Ginsburg, in “The Body Politic,” (also in Pleasure and Danger) argues that women’s opposition to abortion rights stems from a fear that they will lose “a significant leverage point in enforcing male responsibility for the care of mothers and children;” that is, that some women use male responsibility for sex and resulting offspring to ensure their own support in a traditional nuclear family structure, with fathers as breadwinners and mothers secure in their roles as housewives.

Expanding on Ginsburg’s idea just a bit, we can understand possibly that the male need for sex drives a need for control–a desire for power–over the means of satisfaction, and that the women Ginsburg criticizes act to manipulate this desire for power. The picture that thus emerges is more complex than a simple case of misogyny. As Holland writes, “the true horror was the realization that man was not autonomous, rather he was dependent.” Indeed, only in a baby’s act of nursing from its mother is the fulfillment of a human need elsewhere so intimately dependent upon permission from another; such a comparison hardly flatters a self-sufficient masculine image.

Holland makes a powerful case that repression of women sometimes represents misogynous attitudes among powerful or influential men, but acknowledges “the fact that not all men are misogynists. . . . If [misogyny] were the entire story, then the progress that women have made towards equality in Western or Western-style democracies over the last two centuries, which has been achieved with the advocacy and support of men, would hardly have been possible.”

Misogyny indeed is not “the entire story;” the larger story–which surely includes misogyny–lies in a reliance on power rather than cooperation for the fulfillment of need. I cannot imagine a more profound attack on the present social order than that it relies on the subjugation not only of a vast majority of the poulation (workers) to provide financial security for a very few, but on the subjugation of “[w]orking class women . . . in the words of the Irish revolutionary socialist, James Connoly, ‘the slaves of the slaves’,” and of women in general to provide reliable relief for men’s sexual needs.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.