In the past few weeks, my Facebook feed has exploded with posts about abortion. If you use Facebook, probably yours has too.
There’s a lot to say about abortion, especially now that Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Ohio have passed extremely restrictive laws banning abortions in cases where they previously would be legal. But I think there’s a bigger picture to look at too.
The bigger picture is women’s sexuality. Straight men’s sexuality is treated as more legit than women’s. The differences start at a young age.
How many families teach boys the correct names for their genitals, but do not do the same for little girls? Some families simply do not talk about female genitalia, or they call it something euphemistic (I’ve heard “privates,” “bottom,” and even “front butt”).
Consider the movie Pitch Perfect 2, in which a fictional a cappella group gets in trouble after Rebel Wilson accidentally flashes President Obama. In the film, the incident is reported on the news, but the very name of the body part is portrayed as so taboo that the news bleeps it out.
Little boys talk about their penises openly, and later they discuss masturbation and even porn with one another. While parents might not want their preteen or teen boys consuming porn, they often shrug off boys’ expressions of sexuality because “boys will be boys.”
In sex ed at home and at school, girls learn about avoiding sexual harassment and assault, pregnancy, and diseases. It’s taken for granted that men want and enjoy sex and that they will be the sexual aggressors. Often not discussed? Women’s desire for sex and sexual pleasure.
How are women supposed to enter safely and healthily into sexual relationships when they are taught from the start that their sex organs are so shameful they are unspeakable? And that their role in sexual relationships is saying “no” until someday, at an appropriate time (once they are married?), they will say yes and then everything will magically fall into place?
Author Linda Kay Klein wrote about how impossible it is for women to simply shut down their sexuality for years and then, once married, instantly turn it back on again.
Men regulating women’s bodies through restrictive abortion laws is the tip of an iceberg in which women’s sexuality is stigmatized, delegitimized, silenced, controlled, and misunderstood, even by women themselves.
Women and girls try to walk the impossible line between being seen as a prude or a slut, while hookup culture makes young straight women feel they need to give men access to their bodies in hopes that eventually the man may want to start a relationship. Sociologists study the “pleasure gap” in which men are more likely to climax than women in heterosexual sexual encounters.
Banning abortion denies women autonomy over their own bodies and treats women as if they lack the agency to know what is best for themselves. So does this larger picture of how society treats women’s sexuality.
Raising girls who understand and do not feel shame for normal, healthy sexuality—and boys who see women as sexual agents in their own right, not objects for male pleasure—is a first step toward reducing sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy.
And towards raising a generation of young people who will be capable of creating smarter policies around reproductive rights and health.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson writes about food, agriculture, the environment, health, tolerance, and well-being. Currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” Distributed by OtherWords.org.