For a while now, several years, to be a bit more precise, I’ve been trying to figure out why this world still has a hardcore love of sexual abuse against women, and then blame on her for pregnancy and an expectation of sacrificing their lives. Controversial statement? Understatement of the years, but of course, it’s the truth. Take a look at how sex has been portrayed in magazines aimed at women as well as those toward men, and what we’ve had force-fed to us as the romantic ideal through the books we read as “escapism” and then pass on to others with an endorsement of how wonderful it all is.
(This post will be dealing biological sex, not gender, though I’m fairly certain transgender people may understand the messages this post discusses as they still received the same messages before transitioning, and possibly afterward. The birth control part toward the end still applies to transgender people who haven’t had bottom-surgery and have partners with the opposite genitalia.)
Women enjoying sex has been nearly scandalous at times. Throughout most of history, women have been expected to remain chaste until marriage because a touched vagina is spoiled, and how can a man be sure a baby is his own, biologically? Meanwhile, men have been expected to sleep around. It’s good for them, better than masturbating, ben should go have fun, boys will be boys. Women who have sex before marriage are whores and sluts, and men are studs and “the man.” (This is a hypocrisy that infuriated a lot of teens when I was in high school–why is one party okay and the other party trash?) Women who enjoy sex better be good at it for the man, and men who give any pleasure are doing it to prove to themselves that they can. Always male focused. Of course, there are always exceptions, but these are the strong messages we’ve been sent.
I’m going to use a couple literary examples and several magazine examples, then turn back around to fiction again.
Between 1812 and 1818, Lord Byron wrote a long poem called Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It was an absolute smash hit, somewhat autobiographical in many ways. It detailed the exploits of a man traveling the world, as Byron had been doing, including various sexual endeavors. Rather than seen as so vulgar that it shouldn’t be allowed, it was hugely popular, with men as well as women. If it weren’t for a book-length poem about sexing his way around the world, we might never have known who he is.
Over a full century later, D.H. Lawrence wrote an infamous novel called Lady Chatterly’s Lover. OMFG, a WOMAN this time! It had to be privately published in the 1920’s to be shared in full. Otherwise, it had to be censored. It was “obscene” due to the person, who didn’t have indiscriminate sex, and none with a partner of the same sex, unlike Lord Byron, being a woman. The uncensored version wasn’t publicly available until much more recent than you might thing. Only in 1960 was it finally allowed to be published in full in Britain, with a few more countries following soon after. We’re not even sixty years out from when a book about a woman seeking pleasure could even be published for the public.
Male sexuality: Good. Female sexuality: Bad.
We’re still in a time where an R-rate movie can show a man’s penis, but a vagina means an X-rating. Few theaters will show X-rated movies, no matter why it got that rating. A bunch of penises in an R-rated movie will still be in your local cinema, but a non-gratuitous flash of a vagina in a movie, even one that is not about sex, will get an X-rating then not be allowed.
Male sexuality: Good. Female sexuality: Bad.
The messages of magazines since nearly the dawn of time has, when sex has been mentioned, been male-focused. Let’s take one of the most popular men’s general interest magazines around the globe.
Take a look at these five examples of Men’s Health Magazine, the first five examples I found in English (when sitting in Europe, as I am now, image searches show a much greater language variety).
BE A SEX MAGNET
DRESS FOR MORE SEX
SEX DARE! Why she secretly wants You bad
SEXPLOSION! 27 SIGNS SHE SECRETLY WANTS YOU!
6 QUICK WAYS TO TURBOCHARGE YOUR SEX DRIVE
All of them are focused on men receiving sex, and women wanting them, and how men can get more of it.
I did find one that wasn’t quite so male-focus, and I’m sorry this is the largest version of the cover I could find, but the article about sex can still be read.
SUPER SEX! SATISFY HER WITH SCIENCE
I actually mentioned this to a guy, who said that the article was “very clinical.” Okay. I didn’t expect him to have read it, but that bit of insight is helpful. When women are considered, we’re clinical science experiments.
One of the world’s top-selling men’s general interest magazines is Maxim, and…
Let’s not even get started on that one.
Cosmopolitan is one of the top-selling women’s general interest magazines.
25 sex moves he secretly wishes you’d try.
They’re so specific it’s shocking!
20 WAYS TO MAKE HIM SCREAM…in a good way
50 KINKY SEX MOVES Men Vote On Their Favorites
All New 50 SEX TRICKS Trust Us: You’ll Be the First Girl Naughty Enough to Try #43 on Him
On those four magazines above, there were also two that weren’t specific to which person would be the focus, but it’s obviously something involving the man’s pleasure still:
THE NAUGHTY ORGASM TRICK COUPLES LOVE
The “Dirty Sex” Rule Happy Couple Swear By
Even if those two involve the woman’s pleasure, it’s still “naughty” and “dirty.” The other four are all solely about him.
The fifth cover doesn’t have a sex article splashed across the cover about men, but it’s interesting how the one it does have is in small letters on the right side smashed between a splash about “beach reads” and gym memberships.
The oh!-zone…How to find your orgasm EVERY time
Scream it out loud about men, but whisper when it’s about women. And on the men’s magazines, scream it out about men, but be clinical when it’s about women. But like the Cosmo example, squish something woman-centered between loud exclamations about improving your body and something irrelevant to the topic either way. You can then argue that it’s there, but it’s very obviously only there enough to appease critics while being added in a way meant to downplay it altogether.
It’s really easy to try to say that we “know better,” but do we? We read these covers in passing, and the message still sinks in.
Male sexuality: Good. Female sexuality: Bad.
Male sex enjoyment: Good. Female sex enjoyment: Naughty. Dirty.
Women enjoying is bad. Who wants to be bad? So if we choose to engage, especially for our own enjoyment, we must be bad.
Even after the so-called sexual liberation of women in the 1960’s and 1970’s, books didn’t change much. Women’s sexuality was still dirty. The well-known trashy romance and bodice ripper books at the check-stands in grocery stores were perfect to pass off as impulse-buys. Get some milk, some lunch stuff for the kids, laundry detergent…pick up a book while waiting in a way you hop is nonchalant, look bored in case anyone sees you, sigh to make your already-made decision look like like an “might as well, what the hell” decision, toss it between the detergent and the bread to lessen the chance of anyone noticing while hoping anyone who did thinks you just have some extra time and nothing better to do.
In those books, women never had true agency. I’m horrified to admit I used to love some of them. Lisa Kleypas’s Bow Street Runners series was among my favorites. But looking back, my heart hurts at what passed as woman-empowering. The one that sticks out the most in my head is a book where a man wants revenge on an old sexual partner he felt wronged him when she moved on. So he devised a plan to trick her back into his bed. That’s terrible enough. But he didn’t know she had a twin sister, and that that was who he lured into his bed by making her believe they were already partners, and she happened to be a virgin. He realized it when he made her bleed. So his intended sexual assault of a prior partner ended up being the rape of a virgin with amnesia.
The more…palatable…I guess, I can say, involved a woman who was trying to solve something important regarding her family, and the only power she had to get information she needed was though sex. So that’s our value, that’s our power.
At all times, her getting any pleasure was a testament to him being such a studly stud, and him getting pleasure was his damned right.
Looking back at what I read and enjoyed makes me disgusted with myself. But then I have to keep in mind that this is the best of what we had available to us.
Chances are you’ve seen these books. They were everywhere. I couldn’t begin to count how many of them I got at grocery stores. The offerings changed so often that there was no need to go to Barnes & Noble and hoping no one saw a reader heading to that section. I know you’ve seen Harlequin romances, which refers to both those published by Harlequin, or by others publishing the same type. Fabio (that barrel-chested muscle man with flowing blond hair is a real man, by the way…his face smacked a bird on a roller coaster some years ago) with his hands ripping at a woman’s bodice to bare her chest while she appeared faint or rapt with ecstasy, her own hands in some helpless damsel position. Some muscle-head of a guy holding a woman who is leaning away helplessly. A lunk holding some feather of a woman in the air, where he can’t leave since she can’t touch the ground to run. The “hero” in a position of frightening dominance over someone he could crush with one thumb if she says no. These covers are from the 1980’s and 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Believe it or not, we’re already up against the publishing of Twilight, and we’re still dealing exclusively with books that are male-centered. What, she gets some of what we’re supposed to see as love in the form of a man wanting to own her, and he’s owed her loyalty and physical pleasures? Well…yes. That’s it exactly. Kleypas’s Bow Street books, which are hardly the guiltiest of these, and are actually the most woman-powered, despite the women being assaulted anyway by the “heroes”, were published between 1999 and 2003. The first Twilight book was published in 2005. Yes. 2005. Edward breaking into Bella’s room to watch her sleep was milder than literally tricking a virgin into bed in an attempt at sexual-assault-revenge. But stalking is also more realistic for someone to actually experience, making it, in a way, more harmful. (I’ve been stalked, and it’s traumatizing, and I still panic when someone knocks on the door and I’m not expecting anyone.) It’s a more realistic #Goals(ThatShouldNotBeGoals) since it’s more likely to happen than fantasy about some someone hawking I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter between cover shoots for books about savage pirates pillaging the village for booty, only to discover some other kind of booty.
But they all contribute to one thing. Men have the power, men’s sex drives are correct, women only allowed to enjoy it if they’re victims. Twilight presents an interesting twist on this that still puts the man in a position of dominance. Bella wanted it, but Edward expressed concerns for her purity, making him moral guardian of her sexuality. It was nothing about him not being ready, which would have been fine. No, it was moral guardianship. It was also a device to get her to agree to marrying him since he wouldn’t touch her before marriage. (The other sexual pairings within the Cullen clan weren’t married, and it wasn’t presented as a big deal.) But when as a woman not being ready for something mattered? It hasn’t. It’s when the man wants it.
After Twilight, things have spiraled farther out of control, with abuse being so normalized that we actually debate when a No means No, and when it could be a woman wanting it and feeling guilty, or if an orgasm means it’s okay even if she said No, or if being mentally beaten into submission and giving up on saying No means it’s really consent since it hasn’t mattered so far when she has and she’s given up trying anymore. We’re back to this being about teenagers. Once again, teenagers are the target audience of books romanticizing sexual harassment and assault and sexual manipulation. The After books by Anna Todd actually make Christian Grey into the preferable “hero.” And those books are for teenagers.
Something that has been missing since the beginning is an open acceptance of women’s sexuality, of women having the right to say Yes without being seen as a tramp or a whore or anything else negative, or women having the right to say No without being accused of being frigid or being ignored and having a man take his way anyway. While we do have a few books, like many of those by Nora Roberts (JD Robb is a pen name she uses on occasion…and thank you so much, Nora, for never having portrayed a man ignoring a No treated as okay), that do have sexually empowered women, they’re on constant simmer while those in the pots boiling over get the attention.
You know, I recall being told numerous times that Nora’s books were about whores when really it was just women freely consenting. Her books weren’t even carried in the bookstore in the town I was living, nor at the grocery store, nor at the library. I was morbidly curious about the whore-ocity, and looked. Plenty of Harlequin to be had, no Nora Roberts, and online shopping didn’t exist yet. I actually ended up getting some from my grandmother during one of my numerous long-term hospital stays, and it felt okay when I read them since the women were being naughty despite not have being treated as such. Like everyone else, I’d been conditioned to see actual open consent as a sign of a bad woman, and no open consent as a good woman.
We have had a #MeToo movement about the latent sexual assault women have been expected to live with just to be allowed to exist in society and in a world still dominated by men, and yet we still see women who enjoy sex and are empowered to make their own decisions as less worthy or less good than men. We still expect men to have their enjoyment, and still expect women to ultimately submit. If a woman admits having ten partners or more, she’s seen as slutty (I will put my money where my mouth is and raise my hand as to being in that category, without shame), yet when a man does, it’s no big deal. We say women are allowed to do what we want, but the societal judgement indicates otherwise. Legally we can, while societally there’s shame. As a society, we still collectively don’t believe what we say on this. We still reflect what we see in print, and that’s that sex is about and for men’s enjoyment, and women are secondary, are more or less tools for male enjoyment. At best, sex is our tool for getting what we want since that’s the power we have.
Magazine covers aren’t fiction. They carry the same message. We can argue “We know it’s wrong and so what’s the harm?” which ignores how simply mindlessly scanning the covers still puts this into our subconsciouses. We read and believe the titles without critically thinking about why, or even looking into the article more (how often have we all clicked “share” on a Facebook post because the title of an article made us mad, but we would have agreed had we read the article?). We say reading fiction is mindless fun, what’s the harm. Sex in romance has continued to perpetuate the societal mindset that women enjoying sex is bad, but we can enjoy it if the choice isn’t ours. We can enjoy if we’re victims, or if we’re chaste, while men can go sleep their way through San Francisco (of course, we gotta make sure to call those women whores for participating while he’s okay because he’s a man). We can enjoy it if a big, strapping man tricks us and we get off, and we can enjoy it if a billionaire breaks into our room and ties us up while we beg no, and we can enjoy it if we’re “Naughty Enough to Try #43 on Him,” but we’re whores, we’re sluts, we’re worthless if we freely choose to go have a random hook-up, or if we don’t eventually give in to what a man wants, or if we actively pursue sex out of enjoyment of it.
And all the responsibility falls to us. His pleasure. Our safety. Birth control. Oh, yes.
As far as birth control in these books, there’s either none ever mentioned, in which case I guess everyone is infertile due to the months of unprotected shagging, or, if it’s mentioned, there’s some nefarious reason for it. EL James started out right by having Christian Grey wearing condoms, but that was not sincere. It was just a stop on the way to his goal of not wearing them Ana didn’t have a say in the matter when he had a doctor go to his apartment to give Ana an exam and birth control. So basically a back-alley pap smear. Then he ditched the condoms Sex was when he wanted, how he wanted, and the responsibility for not getting pregnant was put on Ana. He didn’t like condoms, so she had to take the responsibility. Yay…romance? And, of course, when she got pregnant (EL James literally doesn’t know how Depo Provera works, which is what Ana had), Christian got pissed at her since it was her fault. He chose to skip condoms, give her no say about being put on birth control (letting her and the doctor decide what kind isn’t a choice when she was told, without discussion, that she was going on it for his pleasure), then blamed her. Sadly, this is still one of the more “positive” portrayals since at least it’s mentioned.
Don’t get me started on how abortion isn’t even to be hinted at existing unless it’s part of a narrative about how horrid the mere thought of it is, and how the only thing to do is to continue a pregnancy, even if it’s literally killing you. In Twilight, Bella’s unborn demon-fetus even broke her back. Literally. Giving birth required literally ripping her abdomen open. The earlier part of the pregnancy was no easier. Edward, to his credit, wanted to end it to save Bella’s life. But no. She wouldn’t consider it. Her purpose was to give birth, even though it was going to kill her…until Carlisle stole donated blood for her to drink, in another moment of “The Author Doesn’t Know How Shit Works.”
These are the two “big” portrayals we have in “romance” books that even address birth control or abortion. The responsibility is hers, she’s at fault if it fails, she can die for it, Big Boy’s gotta get his rocks off unencumbered.
So even birth control in books is about his pleasure. (One of the things I get “wrong” in my books is responsibility is shared, which really basically is taboo…) It matters not that most forms of female birth control can diminish our libidos due to the affects on our endocrine systems. If our libidos go down or die, we’re told by even doctors that we can still go through the motions. (I know this from personal experience. TMI? Grow up. Time to stop acting like matters involving sex is some secret thing.) A man’s libido is important. Something like seventeen types of boner pills to help their libidos, but a tube of KY for women so we can go through the motions, and antidepressants to help us not be so chronically sad about it. Granted, most antidepressants further suppress the libido. Pro-tip: Wellbutrin does not.
By the way, we’ve all heard about that study for a male birth control shot, right? It was stopped due to there being side effects. Disappointingly, while all the articles I read about this pointed out how many women have pointed out that side effects are so common for women’s birth control that they’re seen as normal and expected, every article also comes to the defense of men. That particular article mentions how, of the 1,500 men in the study, there were “one case of depression, one case of intentional overdose, and one case of irregular heartbeat after stopping the injections” So that’s an increase of 0.06%. But it goes on to downplay how 2% of women who take birth control end up newly diagnosed with depression. Out of 1,500 women, this would mean thirty. 1>30 in this case. This, on top of already suffering depression at twice the rate as men.
The big difference is that, for men, the risks of not taking birth control is child support. The risks of taking it is the same side effects women are expected to shoulder. But it does increase male libido. Yay? The risks for women of not taking birth control is pregnancy and all that goes with it, especially in a time when our rights are being systematically stripped to get women’s rights to the Supreme Court so our rights can be banned, the stigma of single parenthood, and still child support since all child support refers to is financial, and women have that as well. The risks of taking it, like the weight gain, the increased depression, the suppressed libido (again…oh, there’s some KY over there, just go through the motions), are mild compared to the risks otherwise.
Once again, the burden is shouldered by women. This is reflected in the books we have that are labeled “romance,” especially in the top-selling books.
Male sexuality: Good. Female sexuality: Bad.
Male pleasure: Important. Female pleasure: see: male pleasure.
Male having sex: Stud. Female having sex: Whore.
Male not having sex: Virtuous. Female not having sex: Frigid bitch.
Male birth control responsibility: Wrong because of side effects
Female birth control responsibility: Of course.
Male experiencing unplanned pregnancy: Victim.
Female experiencing unplanned pregnancy: Irresponsible.
To sum up, male sexuality is a good thing. He’s virtuous if he abstains, but a stud if he wants sex. It’s so perfectly okay that he can take it by force, and the ladies will swoon His pleasure in all ways is so important that it would be wrong to expect him to use birth control that might diminish his pleasure a little, like condoms would, or give him a 0.06% increase in depression. So, if an unplanned pregnancy happens, it was her fault and he’s the victim. But female sexuality is bad. She’s a frigid bitch if she abstains, and a whore if she wants sex. But she can get around being a whore by being raped or assaulted. Despite a 2% increase in depression on top of already having depression at twice the rate of men, since she’s the one who’d have to deal with pregnancy, birth control is her responsibility, and if she gets pregnant anyway, it’s her fault.
Our magazines reinforce this. Books categorized as romance reinforce this. We read it over and over and OVER again, even while out and about doing grocery shopping, but only hear the opposite in some online articles and blog posts and social media comments. They’re the exception, not the rule. We are conditioned to connect romance and positivity with actions and thoughts that are against women, and to connect problems of unwanted pregnancies and single parenthood with actions and thoughts that are against women. I am solidly convinced this is why our society still has a hardcore love of sexual abuse against women, and then blame on her for pregnancy and an expectation of sacrificing their lives. When the best we’ve got are books considered to be sex-positive because the word “kinky” is tossed in, despite pleas to him to stop, and books about teen sex assault being defended as romantic, we’ve really made no progress. At least the Harlequin romances admitted that the men were rotten scoundrels.
I really don’t know why I bother to care anymore when someone like Chris Brown, who has had legal troubles for sexual assault and violence going back a decade and who was most recently arrested in January for rape, is still defended because people are so worried that “His life could of easily been ruined from this!” and still has a huge die-hard fanbase and is still celebrated with grammies and celebrity support. (To make the record clear, he was released without charges due to a lack of evidence, which rarely exists in rape cases, which is a huge part of why most victims don’t bother filing police reports. The woman, in this instance, is being sued now due to “insufficient” evidence to back her claim.) It’s emotionally exhausting to keep fighting against the continued romanticizing of abuse and assault and rape and how popular media continues to perpetrate this dangerous idea at every turn. I’ve been saying for years now that continuing to place the blame and burden on women while shaming us was going to make things worse if it didn’t stop, and it has gotten worse. While even Ireland has taken massive strides regarding women’s rights, the US has gone backward.
We are losing rights to ““force” women to be “more personally responsible with sex.””more personally responsible with sex.”” We already always have been! LITERALLY!! There has NEVER been a time, EVER, where we weren’t the ones entirely on the hook. There has never been a time when the pleasure of women mattered as much, and never a time when men were expected to be responsible. EVER. And yet we still buy the same damned magazines with the same sexist cover splashes and we still hold up the same damed “romance” books as ideal while defending actions that are anti-woman as somehow feminist because we still believe women are irresponsible and bad, then going online and defending the Christian Greys and Hardin Scotts of the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sparked the American Civil War. The printed word has power. Yet the words we write and read and endorse time and time again reinforce the dangerous message that it’s all the fault of women, we just need to be responsible, and it’s not changing. Until we start to condemn the media that fertilizes the sexist idea that it’s all on women while excusing men from responsibility, and until we condemn hand-waving men’s abusive behavior as long as there might be an orgasm in it for a woman, nothing will get better for us. Nothing will change as long as we continue to say that sexual assault against women and the responsibility being entirely ours is empowering and romantic. The words we speak aloud are a moment, but that which is written will continue to speak even after we’re dead. Newspaper articles, even magazine articles, will be forgotten with time. Books are what last both history books written by the victors and fiction books. New articles lay in the ashes of the old that were burned to make way for the new, but books get added to a growing mountain. Which really get the attention, the ash pile, or the mountain blocking the sun?
Sometimes I wonder why I continue to fight what may be a losing battle, why I continue to argue, why I continue to protest, why I continue to write, when there’s an ever-growing mound of “abuse is romantic since he loves her so much he can’t control his passion,” “he’s the victim since her birth control failed,” “she had an orgasm, so it’s okay that he ignore her saying No,” and an ever-growing mound of “the pleasure is for him, the responsibility is for her.” Why continue to scream into the void?
At least she’ll know her mother tried to prevent her generation from being force-fed the same messages. At least she’ll know her mother tried to make sure she’ll matter as much as the future-men in her life. At least she’ll know her mother tried to make sure those future-men will share in the responsibility. At least she’ll know her mother tried to make sure that her choices in her life and regarding her body are protected.
At least she’ll know her mother tried.
Brava! I have been saying the same thing, though far less eloquently, for the past forty years, and I am delighted to see a younger woman writing this message in such detail today. I cringe every time I read about a woman playing the “I’m a dirty girl” or “naughty” game because she likes sex and wants it. Why the hell should she feel guilty or bad or dirty?
Don’t forget that at one time cancer was considered to be a very real risk for women who took oral contraceptive pills.
If condom hater Christian Grey was serious about not wanting children he should have had a vasectomy. That is what a person who really did exercise control in all aspects of his life would have done.
An excellent article! I am sure your daughter will be very proud of her mother when she reads it.
Author Alys Marchand said:
I never understood the “bad girl” and “spank me, daddy” side of sex. Even when I was younger, something just felt off about it. I think, now, that part of me was uncomfortable with that being the one and only depiction we had. Ironically, the first book I ever read that mentioned a woman having sex without being treated like she was bad was a Sweet Valley University book.
There are still people today who say contraceptives will cause cancer and all manners of bad things. With the way things are going right now, my IUD will be illegal before too much longer, though it’s not for contraceptive purposes. I’m infertile, and my daughter was the result of IVF. All things related to sex are about to be used punitively. Punish women with forced pregnancy and parenthood for not being more “responsible” while taking away her options, and if she’s raped, well, she should have thought about that before existing. Things are snowballing right now. Seven years ago on Facebook (I found the post), I gave it fifteen years before this happened, and not a single commenter agreed. Look how hast Iran went from progressive with women wearing mini skirts to what it is now. A bad government got in, used loopholes, and we’re seeing it first-hand. It’s not so surprising when we’ve never been presented with anything else, then the norm even in more progressive magazines and books that are consumed by the case without so much as a quick panic of “oh, crap, abort?” before deciding to keep. No options exist.
I hadn’t even thought about how he should have gotten a vasectomy. So very true!! But no, it would have been a mind inconvenience for him. Better to force birth control o women and blame them for failures.