The sexual double standard and gender repression

A double standard about sex exists in our society; the rules are different for men and women, with men being praised and envied for their successes. The same is of course true to a certain degree for women, but too much sexual success can result in condemnation of the woman as a ‘slut’ ‘whore’ etc; a man can never have too much success and is usually never condemned. This isn’t news to anybody – we all admit that the double standard exists and most of us simply accept the existence of the double standard – even if we don’t agree with it or conform to it (for example by being inexperienced (if male) or by having many sexual conquests (if female)).

The double standard is something we’re all used to and hardly ever notice or think about; most consider it to be only slightly harmful to our society, if at all. But when the double standard is broken down into its components it appears more sinister. Firstly, to have a double standard the genders must be greatly differentiated in popular opinion. Only then can one gender be deemed worthy of being allowed sexual freedom and become the favoured or superior gender while the other is not allowed sexual freedom. This results in a double standard. In our society the double standard favours the male gender. As opinions change and the genders become less differentiated, the double standard may weaken and this is in fact what has happened over the last few decades. Sadly though it has still managed to survive well beyond the millennium.

It is usually taken for granted that men, or patriarchal society, forced the double standard onto women (a theory which makes sense, and is explored in the chapter on why unmarried mothers are discriminated). In the western world, the double standard came into existence some centuries ago. I hesitate to say “millennia” as it is unclear if the Celts, Vikings or Anglo-Saxons had a double standard or if they did, if it operated in the same way as ours. Our double standard also has different rules for different age groups – young girls’ successes are not as criticised as a middle aged woman’s, and teen girls’ successes are the most criticised.)

However, over the centuries some women, instead of rallying to overturn the double standard have instead joined ranks with the men to enforce the double standard on their sisters. These women, who I will term ‘enforcers’ completely accept the double standard as absolutely true. Moreover, to the enforcer it becomes a conception of the good, a cultural value. Enforcers want all women to obey and conform to the double standard. Because the standard is not, at least in the UK, a law, they are reduced to enforcing compliance by using peer isolation/peer rejection and verbal censure to make life difficult for women who do not comply. These tactics may also intimidate women into complying. Peer isolation/rejection refers to the enforcer’s behaviour towards others regarding the victim (with the exception of the enforcer avoiding the victim), while verbal censure refers to the enforcer’s behaviour towards the victim herself. This does not mean that peer isolation and verbal censure are the only tools used to achieve gender repression – some colleagues may engage in more serious emotional bullying; pupils may inflict physical violence (the slut shaming of Canadian teen Amanda Todd who killed herself) and some cultures condone honour killings. However, these two tools are the most common methods used by enforcers to repress others in the western world. Men can also be enforcers but as noted above, they usually are less likely to engage in gender repression than women.

Peer isolation/rejection might mean avoiding a closer relationship with or not talking to the woman, or using gossip and rumour to ensure that others avoid her. This could also be achieved by joking about the victim’s sexual success negatively behind her back, or simply by letting other colleagues/friends/neighbours/pupils know that the woman is disliked by the enforcers.

Verbal censure consists of criticising a woman’s successes as ‘slutty’, or simply referring to them in a negative way or letting the woman know that her sex life is not approved of. Peer isolation and spreading gossip have been recognised as forms of bullying that occur in schools and are most often used by girls. Teenage girls often have to negotiate the ground between being bullied for being inexperienced or ‘frigid’ and being bullied for being a ‘slut’. (Though of course bullying can occur for any ‘reason’ or none). Schools in the UK have anti-bullying policies, though in practice most would agree that they are not very effective in combating bullying.

Of course, these very same tactics are taken from the high school into the workplace. While punching, name-calling and hair pulling are somewhat discouraged at work, peer isolation and gossip are difficult to detect and control, and this is the reality which both men and women have to deal with throughout their lives, even within the family and neighbourhood.

When enforcers decide to use tactics to force compliance with the double standard, gender repression occurs. Gender repression is the term I have given to the process of:

a)      an individual changing her behaviour or lifestyle due to peer rejection/verbal censure by enforcers

b)      fear-instilment in an individual so that she does not engage in her natural behaviour but instead changes her goals and/or personality due to peer isolation/verbal censure by enforcers.

 

This does not mean that the individual has to change her beliefs, feel intimidated by the enforcers or actively try to conform to the double standard. She could be submitting to gender repression simply because it is easier for her to do so. Fulfilling her natural personality while keeping this a secret from others or the enforcer would also count as not engaging in her natural behaviour (if her natural behaviour would not be so secretive) so would be enough to fulfil the criteria for gender repression.

 

It is an ironic fact that, in schools, offices and neighbourhoods around the country, men do not dislike or spread gossip about ‘sluts’, nor monitor women’s sex lives, nearly as much as women do. Perhaps this is because men benefit from ‘sluts’ while heterosexual women do not benefit. Or perhaps men do not think sex is as important as women think it is. The possibilities are endless, and I will not exhaust them here. Gossip is, unfortunately, the norm in our society, and women who gossip can be distinguished from enforcers. The latter believe that males have a right to greater success than females, and treat males and females differently when it comes to sexual success though not in other matters – so they are not sexist in the ordinary sense of the word. Their sexism is extremely narrow and focused only on sexual success, not financial success or educational success.

This is where the subtle nuances of human personalities come into play. A woman may have feminist tendencies in one area (like wishing there were more female MPs) be gender-neutral in everything else, and yet criticise women for sleeping around while not criticising men for doing so. This person is still an enforcer even while having feminist tendencies or calling herself a feminist. Conversely, a man who is disgusted at the increasing rate of female employment may not be an enforcer, though he is sexist.  So we can see that ideology and being an enforcer are not necessarily related. The most well-educated, career-orientated women can be enforcers; a high-status job or even a career in sociology, politics, social work or psychology does not render any person immune from the taint of any prejudice, and that includes the role of enforcer.

Enforcers are not some secret organization bent on commanding obedience to the double standard, or always aware that they are acting as enforcers while they verbally censure others or engage in peer rejection. Indeed, just as we all bully without realising it (precious few individuals go through an entire lifetime without committing even one trivial incidence of mild bullying), we all act as enforcers/engage in gender repression occasionally without ever realising it. At the moment we engage in gender repression, we are enforcers (we believe the double standard is absolutely true at that moment) but if we have only momentary lapses and do not believe the double standard is true, or value it, or seek others’ compliance with it continually, we are not enforcers, just as occasional incidents of bullying does not make someone a bully.

True enforcers engage in gender repression continually and not as isolated incidents.  Enforcers do not generally see themselves as on a crusade or mission to ensure compliance with the double standard (if someone does, this may be indicative of more serious issues.) They do believe that ‘it’s okay’ for men to be sexually successful, but not okay for women to be (or that women should limit their success.) In other words, they accept the double standard as absolutely true and may adopt it as a value or principle.

While engaging in gender repression (using verbal censure and peer rejection) enforcers may admit to themselves that they are bullying or treating someone badly, or engaging in unethical behaviour. They understand that their behaviour is hurtful to the victim but they may not understand that what they are doing is gender repression or its wider societal implications. This does not mean that all enforcers do not fully understand what they are doing – some do, and desperately engage in gender repression in the hope that their victim will change her behaviour and conform to the double standard. This may lead to repeated attacks against the same victim(s).

Enforcers may wish that society would conform more with the double standard, or see obedience to the double standard as a long-term goal for society. For some, these beliefs and wishes may be conscious and they may even express these wishes to friends. For others these beliefs and wishes may be subconscious so that the enforcer is motivated by them to engage in gender repression without realising where his/her convictions come from. A ‘strong’ belief may not necessarily be conscious nor a ‘weak’ one subconscious.

 

Gender repression makes complying with the double standard (or appearing to, by keeping successes a secret) easier than non-compliance. Being free of verbal censure and peer isolation makes promotion, good neighbourly relations, popularity and other social goods easier to achieve. This is especially true for any kind of election (whether within a company, student organization or sports club) and entry into semi-organized groups (found within churches, voluntary organizations and also schools, where they take the form of cliques or gangs.) Obviously, there are countless more examples and the complexity of human relationships when combined with institutional hierarchies and the juxtaposition of different age groups or classes means that in most situations, freedom from peer isolation and verbal censure (usually) entail easier advancement for ambitious individuals.

However, how an individual responds to peer isolation and/or verbal censure can also have an impact; a socially adept person or one who has connections in the right places may remain completely unaffected or even turn the gender repression to her advantage by gaining sympathy and support. A miscalculation on the part of an enforcer could mean that the enforcer is seen as a prejudiced person, a bully, or a deviant.

However, in general terms, it is easier for women to submit to gender repression and the will of enforcers. This means there is a greater likelihood that the victim herself will become an enforcer, or engage in some occasional gender repression herself, out of frustration or jealousy. It is not difficult to visualise a woman who is discriminated against because of her lifestyle feeling bitter when she sees another girl enjoying her life without condemnation. Just as some bullies are also being bullied themselves, and indulge in bullying behaviour because they feel weak and powerless, so may some enforcers indulge in gender repression, or individuals who are not enforcers indulge in occasional gender repression, because they feel weak against the enforcers who control their lifestyles.

And as our society progresses and more people become better educated, respect for human rights and others’ lifestyles and choices will be promoted more than they are today. Eventually, in subsequent generations there are likely to be less and less enforcers; less enforcers means less gender repression which in turn leads to less enforcers. In time these two terms will become irrelevant as gender repression is eradicated. And even though I just made these terms, I hope they become totally irrelevant to our society as soon as possible.

 

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