Sexual Politics 2019

I sometimes look at young girls in their 20s, leading lives of unprecedented equality and freedom, and lament the fact they seem to know nothing of the fight their ancestors went through to win the freedom they now take almost for granted.

But in a way, that’s how it should be. True equality is unconscious. It doesn’t need to be measured or weighed or even valued – it is sucked in with mother’s milk and seems as natural as earth, air, fire and water.

Because women have had it pretty bad for all of human history – and still do in most cultures outside the first world. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that improvements have started happening and to give a clearer picture of exactly what I mean, let’s take a snapshot of the condition of women in England in the year 1800.

The class system was real and there was no welfare state. Very few people had the vote and those were only propertied white men with an annual income that would see them in the top few percent of earners. Women, even aristocratic women, had no right to vote and no right to own property once they were married.

Women of lesser degree, if not married to a man with an income, were forced into penury which very often meant prostitution.

Women had no control of their reproductive systems so life, for most, was a predictable series of events: limited education – marriage – several pregnancies (any of which could be fatal) – motherhood – grand-motherhood – death. That’s not to judge these institutions in any way but that was the extent of a woman’s lot, which didn’t change until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 – the first piece of legislation to recognise the (very limited) rights of women.

South Australia, New Zealand and eventually other jurisdictions gave women the vote over the next 60 years, but the true clincher – the biggest change in male/female relations since the dawn of time – was the contraceptive pill, which became legal in Australia in 1962.

For the first time, women had control of their bodies in a way men had always had – and had never had to think about. This led to profound societal changes over the next few generations, which nevertheless still carried the sexual political baggage of millennia.

Marriage, for example, is very much a pre-pill institution – a licence to create extra mouths to feed in a village of limited agrarian resources. We no longer live in that limited village and sex is no longer a deterministic path to pregnancy. But we still live with so much of the cultural debris from the glacier of human progress.

Marriage is an obvious one but there are plenty of more subtle indicators around the division of labour. Women (including those in professional work) still do more than their share of household chores. And watch what happens at just about any dinner party in the first world. It tends to be the women who get up to clear the table while the men sit around talking. This is not an absolute rule, but it tends to be true. And all those men being waited upon probably regard themselves as entirely reconstructed.

So, when you consider political rights, access to the professions, independent incomes and general opportunity to live as one would like, we’ve come a long way but we’re not quite there when it comes to real equality.

All of that is preliminary to what I really want to talk about.

In the wake of the Me Too movement there have been any number of developments that throw further spotlight onto the ongoing depredations of men with unequal bargaining power, but is the long overdue correction starting to go too far?

I read an article the other day about university research into the objectification of women and how they felt about it. Let me be clear – any sort of unwanted sexual attention is unpleasant, and if it continues, after non-encouragement, becomes creepy and ultimately criminal.

But where do we draw the line?

The continuity of the human race is utterly dependent on men and women continuing to be sexually attracted to each other. In a perfect world, people would only be attracted to people who reciprocated. But our world is far from perfect.

People are constantly attracted to others who do not reciprocate – and part of growing up is learning to deal with rejection. But rejection can only happen in the context of unilateral attraction, and how does attraction commence?

Through objectification.

For the point of argument, let’s limit the discussion to heterosexual people of childbearing age. It is (almost) axiomatic that these people are (at least initially) sexually attracted to others on the basis of their physical appearance.

It starts with objectification, which becomes subjectification only through experience and reciprocation.

Without objectification the race would die.

I would regard myself as more reconstructed than the average male chauvinist dinosaur. I fully appreciate the role of radical views in normalising the majority to socio-political evolution, but let’s not over-correct in the pursuit of equality.

If men and women are too scared to fancy each other, then that’s an end to us.

Let’s not overthink this.

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