Choice Joyce: Misogyny

Choice Joyce

Essays from a pro-choice feminist liberal skeptic infidel activist (and animal lover)

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Thoughts on Jack Holland's "Misogyny"
and the links between misogyny, women's "right to choose," and rape

I just finished reading the book "Misogyny: the World's Oldest Prejudice" by Jack Holland. This is an excellent history of misogyny, and I highly recommend it. Even though it deals with very disturbing issues, it's not depressing to read. It's well-written and easy to follow, and the author's respect for women shines through. (Please note that my comments and excerpts below do not do justice to the book, and should not be taken as a comprehensive book review.)

One very peculiar thing about this book is that Holland does not mention anywhere the standard socio-biological theory that most of women's oppression can be traced to the male need to establish paternity of their children, as I explained in my article Why Prostitution Cannot be Abolished and also in my speech Patriarchy, Paternity, and Reproductive Rights.

This is quite an amazing oversight for a book on misogyny, especially since so much of what Holland talks about—the countless ways in which women have been oppressed and punished through history—are very clearly a direct result of men's inability to be certain that their children are really theirs. But otherwise, the book is a superb effort, and gave me many new insights to think about. Obviously, misogyny is a complicated thing to account for.

Holland says the prejudice of misogyny can be summed up in four words: "pervasive, persistent, pernicious, and protean." He traces the origin of patriarchy and women's oppression to early Greek and Middle-eastern cultures. Ancient myth depicts women as responsible for bringing life into the world, but also death—because once you're born, you're destined to die. He details the myth of Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden, and Pandora opening Pandora's box, both of which brought death into the world. So, men fear women because of their power to bring life AND death. It's a strange mix of envy and contempt, or fascination and fear—reflected in that modern male lament: "Women! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!" Contempt for women arises because men want to feel they're sacred and immortal beings like gods, or at least autonomous beings on some kind of higher plane, but woman's physical nature—their child-bearing and sexual allure—remind men that they are "weak" biological beings subject to temptations of the flesh, and destined to live and die like animals. Since this is women's "fault" because they have a "baser" nature than men, it's necessary to punish, control, and oppress women.

Any system of dualism, according to Holland, tends to be very unkind to women—for example, the Platonic mind versus body doctrine, or the Marxist philosophy of the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat—because dualistic systems set up a battleground for two conflicting forces, and this usually fits right into a justification of misogyny. This can happen by either emphasizing the differences between men and women, effectively relegating women to their motherhood role, or by erasing the differences to the extent that women are denied their sexuality and motherhood roles altogether.

Women's Sexual Choice as a Threat to Patriarchy

Another aspect of Holland’s thesis fascinated me. His Chapter 8, Body Politics, focuses on reproductive rights and abortion, and how the anti-choice movement is the latest strong manifestation of misogyny. The closest Holland comes to a biological explanation of misogyny is this: In the animal kingdom, female primates experience oestrus and the males always know when the female is ready to have sex. But human females have lost that ability, and can have sex at any time. This puts men at a real disadvantage, because they can't actually tell when a woman is ready and willing, so men have to persuade women. Most importantly, this gives women the power to choose who they mate with, and when. As a result, men resent women for having that power, and they need to control women and their sexuality. It's worth quoting Holland in full here, he's quite eloquent, and this gives one a flavour of his writing style and his positive attitude towards women. He says:

"It's no coincidence that central to this revolution within human sexuality is choice. The suppression of the oestrus cycle frees human females from the element of compulsion, keeps males attentive to her, and allows her greater opportunity to pick and choose a mate. Ovulation has been crucial to evolution. Just as importantly, it makes possible a wide variety of relationships between women and men that go beyond the purely procreative, allowing the complex social interactions that are characteristic of all human cultures where the sexes can relate to each other at many different levels - as lovers, friends, companions, and work colleagues. It reminds us that women's right to choose is central not only to their own integrity, but to the very roots of what makes us human and distinguishes us from other primates. It is no wonder then that the expansion of the right to choose has throughout history been crucial for women. The right to choose her mate, and control the circumstances under which she would mate with him, marked an important stage in women's history. Now the battle for choice centres on her right to control her own fertility.”

“If choice is so central to women's evolution (and therefore to human evolution), then so too is her sexuality, and her right to display or emphasize it. It is one of the characteristics of cultures where misogyny is part of society's 'common sense' that they seek to suppress that right. In some cases, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it reached such levels of paranoia that anything associated with female sexual allure, such as lingerie, would inspire in them something akin to terror. This fear is usually associated with efforts to confine women's sexuality to its procreative role, so it is not surprising that mothers loom large in the minds of many misogynists. They have problems relating to a woman at any other level. Typically, of course, they disguise their opposition to women's sexual display patronizingly, in terms of 'protecting them' against exploitation by wicked chauvinists - both the Nazis and the Moslem fundamentalists followed their hoary tradition in the reasons they gave as they tried to suppress make-up and beauty parlours. But their actions and their obsessions reveal only their own inability to relate to sexually mature women." (pg 284-5)

This latter paragraph is particularly intriguing because it reminded me that that many feminists also fall into the trap of misogyny, when they try to deny women the right to feel beautiful and sexy, or even the right to enjoy sex (at least casual sex). Some feminists blame and criticize women for wearing make-up and sexy clothes, claiming this just buys into male exploitation of women's sexuality. Some even proudly talk about how they themselves wear nondescript, baggy clothes and no makeup so they won't be seen as "sexual objects" to men. Also, some feminists tend to denigrate motherhood and disrespect "traditional" women who want to bear and raise children. But as Holland notes, sexuality and motherhood are obviously very important parts of women's identity. Suppressing the expression of female beauty and sexuality actually results in the oppression of women. He points out that when women are given some freedom in a society, the first thing many women do is start wearing make-up, getting their hair done, and wearing pretty clothes. So when women do this, it's actually a sign that they are FREE, not oppressed. It's perfectly normal for women to want to be attractive to men. Men are the same of course; they just do it in different ways. And there is NO contradiction between a woman wanting to look beautiful and sexy, and also using her brain and talents and being respected for that.

Holland says: “A deep ambivalence towards women’s beauty remains in our own culture as part of our inheritance of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards the body,” mentioning that even early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft urged women to “resign the arbitrary power of beauty” or they would “prove they have less mind than man.” But Holland points out that the majority of women have always rejected the dichotomy between mind and body, and quotes psychologist Nancy Etcoff: “The solution cannot be to give up a realm of pleasure and power that has been with us since the beginning of time.” Here’s another insightful passage from Holland’s book in this regard. First he quotes Steven Pinker, who says in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature:

" 'There is in fact, no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical' writes Pinker. 'To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of human beings are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.' [Holland says:] That is, if it were found that most women spend more time in beauty parlours than in the library reading Plato, that is not an argument for depriving them of the vote - no more so than it would be if it were proven that a majority of men prefer to watch football and drink beer than to solve geometrical problems." (pg 282)

Abortion and Rape

Holland makes a very revealing and useful analogy between abortion and rape, although I think there's a flaw in it. He talks about the doctrine of Pope John Paul II, who told "poor and illiterate women that to use a condom is the moral equivalent of murder and that each time they use contraceptives they render Christ's sacrifice on the cross 'in vain." The Pope said: "No personal or social circumstances have ever been able, or will be able, to rectify the moral wrong of the contraceptive act." Holland responds:

"Underlying this attitude is the assumption that when it comes to having a baby, a woman's consent is not necessary and that once made pregnant, accidentally or not, her own will is rendered irrelevant. The moral implications of this are interesting when compared with those governing our attitudes to rape. All civilized societies accept that a woman's consent is necessary in order to have intercourse with her. Not to seek that consent and to coerce her into intercourse is to commit rape, which is a serious crime. But yet according to the Church, in the vital matter of pregnancy, a woman's consent is beside the point. She can be made pregnant against her wishes, and without her consent. The inexorable law of God overrides her will and the fact that she is pregnant determines her fate. Her personal autonomy is denied her. To deny the need for her consent in this, the most important aspect of a woman's life, is surely the moral equivalent of justifying rape. It reminds us once more of the profound contempt that has underpinned Catholic attitudes towards women and that has been responsible for so much suffering down the centuries." (pg 242-3)

Now this is very good, but there's an important problem with it, because of Holland's failure to understand how the male need to establish paternity is the basis for the oppression of women. Although he's right that rape is considered a crime, it's only quite recently in history that it's become a crime against women. For example, marital rape has not been a crime for long in western countries, because it was a wife's duty to submit to her husband (and bear his children), so her consent to sex was irrelevant. Also, it was only in 1993 that the United Nations finally added rape to the list of "crimes against humanity" during war. According to patriarchy and the male paternity theory, rape is really a crime against men, not women. It's used as a way to dishonour and humiliate the enemy, because by raping women that "belong" to other men, rapists have violated the right to paternity of those other men.

Rape in general, whether during war or not, is also an expression of men's contempt and fear of women, a way to exert power and control over them—but also an opportunity for the rapist to father a child and thereby establish his right to paternity by out-competing other men. According to patriarchy, a woman's consent to sex OR pregnancy is irrelevant, because the overriding concern is that men need to reproduce and ensure it's their children being produced. That's why it's acceptable to rape your enemy's women, or even rape your own wife, but it's never OK for the enemy to rape your wife (or daughter). And that's why rape became a crime. The fact that rape victims are often treated with contempt and disgrace, sometimes even charged with adultery, or murdered or exiled by their own families, is further proof that women's consent (or lack of) is irrelevant. Because the rape is not considered a crime against the woman so much as it's a crime against family honour and the male assurance of paternity.

Going back to Holland's analogy, although it seems like there's a jarring difference between the Church's attitude towards abortion and rape, there actually isn't. The Church is against both rape and abortion, because in the patriarchal view, they both interfere with the male right to paternity, and they both violate the dignity of woman—except according to the Church, woman's "dignity" rests on her sacred role as the mother of children by her husband—not by a rapist or enemy solder.

Looking at abortion versus rape brings to mind a further corroboration of the theory that women’s oppression is based on the male need to establish paternity. Most people, including a large number of anti-choice people, agree to exceptions in abortion laws for rape and incest. But this actually doesn't make sense if all life is sacred and fetuses have a right to life. After all, a fetus that is the product of rape is just as "innocent" as any other and should have the same "rights". However, these exceptions fit exactly with the male paternity theory. That's because the product of rape or incest is itself a violation of "rightful" male paternity—therefore it's OK, even necessary, to get rid of it.

The sheer injustice and brutality fostered by misogyny continues unabated today in many parts of the world. The oldest prejudice in human history in so pervasive and entrenched that it's still seen as quite normal and ordinary—just "common sense" as Holland puts it. I only wish we could make "Misogyny" required reading for all policymakers, government leaders, and religious leaders.


  • At 12:14 PM, Blogger Marcy Bloom said…

    Jyoce, Thank you so much for this thoughtful and excellent analysis that truly gets to the heart of women's oppression and exposes the origins of historic misogyny. These topics and this type of hard-hitting discourse deserve this kind of exposure. I am very appreciative of your superb writing that truly gets to the core of why women are still suffering in our world today.
    Great work!

  • At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Perhaps London has made too much of the jealousy-hate men experience toward women, and you have made too much of the male desire to establish paternity. There seems to be a lot of evidence that these psychological attributes are bred by circumstances, for example in a lay-back matrilineal society men are quite fine lying around without being sure of who their children are (the children are with the mother's camp) and without wanting to establish dominion over women. There is the possibility that misogyny and the need to ensure paternity are caused by (growing up in) patriarchy rather than being the cause of it. Just a suggestion.

  • At 10:04 PM, Blogger therapeuter said…

    Wow, just looked at your site, and was too impressed by all the interesting thoughts and opinions and short stories you have on exhibit. Like you :-) (I like smart women [~blush].)

  • At 7:13 AM, Blogger choice joyce said…

    To Theophoreots: Thank you for your comment. The issue of matrilineal (or matriarchal) societies is interesting, although the evidence for how truly "feminist" they really were, or even whether they actually existed, is somewhat suspect or unclear. It's possible that such societies simply did not understand the connection between the sex act and pregnancy, or at least did not see a direct connection between a particular man's sex act and his paternity. Jack London does point out that many men are not sexist and don't seem concerned with paternity, which seems to imply that biology is not the hard-and-fast answer. Human behaviour and psychology are indeed complex and variable. I'm optimistic that societies can "unlearn" patriarchal tendencies if they make an effort.

  • At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This sounds like an excellent book! Yes, all misogyny relates to male fears and insecuritites.

    The womb is at the heart of women's oppression, since women have the ability to do something that is exclusively female, pure, spiritual and a great physical achievement. It doesn't mean women are better, but it DOES account for aspect of oppression of women, particularly within religion with its emphasis on males as "life-givers."

    Women will continue to suffer until we get to the root of why some men are so threatened and insecure. We need to raise our sons with this understanding.

  • At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Joyce. Thanks for replying. Yes, I'm aware that many matrilineal societies aren't exactly female-dominated, but dominated by females' male-relatives. There are still many matrilineal societies in the minority regions in southern China. But they are fast disappearing.

  • At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    While I don't think I've experienced enough misogyny to be an expert, this idea around the male need to establish paternity doesn't ring any bells of connection with me at all. I suspect it has more to do with erotic power - we men can get tangled up with all the different kinds of desire (not just sexual) we have for women, which then gives women power to grant or refuse what we so deeply need. But because we don't think of it clearly like that, some men's powerlessness/frustration turns to resentment. What do you think of that idea, Joyce?
    Michael Biggs

  • At 8:59 AM, Blogger choice joyce said…

    Thanks Michael. I don't think your hypothesis has much explanatory power. E.g, it doesn't explain men's protectiveness or possessiveness, or any of the specific ways that women are oppressed that clearly relate to their sexual behaviour. It also doesn't explain why it wouldn't be the same for women, since we also have different kinds of desire for men, we also deeply need sex, and also can feel powerless, frustrated, and resentful when it comes to men.

    You are implying that men's sexual need for women is more pressing and encompassing than vice versa, and that women therefore hold sexual power over men. But if that's true, the likely explanation would be because women have the awesome ability to produce a baby from sex while men can't, which in turn would make women less focused on sex itself (or at least perceived to be less focused), as they have pregnancy and childbearing to contend with.

  • At 8:55 AM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Do you believe that Misandry has the same negative effect on society?

  • At 8:09 AM, Blogger choice joyce said…

    I think that strict gender roles hurt men as much as, or nearly as much as, women. But that's not the same as misogyny, which is deliberate oppression and active hatred, fear, or distrust. There's really not much misandry in the world at all, other than from fringe groups like radical feminists who oppose prostitution because they demonize the male sex drive and think men are predators.

    So yes, I think the negative effects of misogyny are far greater than misandry, because misogyny is much more universal and deep-rooted. It affects every woman to some extent and destroys or greatly limits 100's of millions of women's lives.


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