As Susan Faludi demonstrated in “Backlash,” attitudes about gender and sexuality tend to be cyclical. Women’s success in the workplace, especially, has a tendency to create anti-feminist backlashes. As Faludi documented, the 80s backlash in response to the normalization of professional work for women took shape in demands that women embrace more feminine-submissive behaviors and fashions, the idolizing of housewives as perfect women, and attacks on reproductive rights.
Despite the previous anti-feminist administration, the past couple of decades have been good for women: education levels rose to meet and exceed men’s, women’s leadership became more normalized from Condie Rice to Hillary Clinton, and the public debate over sexual harassment in the 90s was won by feminists (though social disapproval of it remains no more than an inch deep). Even the existence of the feminist blogosphere can be counted as a major triumph. The tendency of news magazines to periodically declare feminism “dead” can’t withstand the overwhelming online evidence that feminism is very much alive.
And now we’re in a backlash period, and the focus hasn’t been on fashion or even sending women to the home as much—it’s all about sex, baby. Or more precisely, there’s been an alarming trend towards glamorizing chastity standards that have often been out of fashion for 50 years. It’s not just the nearly 1,000 bills in state legislatures aimed at punishing and controlling female sexuality by depriving women of access to birth control and abortion, though god knows that would be enough. As Faludi demonstrated in her history of the 80s, these things tend to spread and morph and infect the discourse and behavior of all sorts of people in all sorts of situations.
One story recently brought home how very terrible the situation is getting when it comes to the policing and punishing of women for their lack of commitment to chastity. Jasmijn Rijcken was visiting New York City from her native Holland, and was pulled over by a New York City police officer and threatened with a ticket for wearing a short skirt on a bicycle. He called her skirt “distracting,” and only backed off when he learned she didn’t actually live in the city. He used the age-old excuse that women’s bodies are so “distracting” that they must be covered up, as men cannot control themselves when exposed to whatever body part the complainant deems too damn sexy. At least the cop in this case wasn’t suggesting men would be forced to rape her; he simply claimed that women’s alluring flesh would cause car accidents. Here’s a picture of the supposedly scandalous skirt:
As a reminder, this incidence happened in New York City, a place where you can walk down the street wearing only a pair of underwear and many people won’t even look at you. On an average day in the city, you’ll see at least 50 women wearing skirts shorter than that, and yet the mass chaos on the streets has yet to break out. I’m sure said police officer would probably laugh if you suggested that the United States have legal dress codes for women on par with Saudi Arabia or Iran, but really his asinine argument was different than those laws only in degree and not in kind.
This whole thing comes on the tail of the devastating acquittal of two NYPD police officers for rape, even though there’s tons of corroborating evidence for the victim’s claim to wake up after sobering up from being black-out drunk to find herself being raped. There’s tapes showing the officers repeatedly returning to her apartment for no good reason and the taped confession of one who said he used a condom, for instance. But the jury refused to convict, and interviews afterwards make it clear that many jury members simply couldn’t muster sympathy for the victim, who had violated the standards of modesty by drinking so much in the first place.
In fact, one of the favorite games of the tabloids now is Good Girl vs. Bad Girl. From my perusal of tabloid magazines at the grocery store and gossip blogs, it appears that most of the stories fall into one of two categories:
1) Glowing, flattering portrayals of women who follow the increasingly strict rules of chastity and modesty. Weddings, pictures of women holding babies and canoodling with monogamous partners, women in pastels, and especially women renouncing any kind of behavior in the past that might indicate a fondness for partying or the penis are all subject to being photographed in flattering light, looking well-rested and content.
2) Slatterns who are pictured under flashes or unflattering lights while drinking or wearing sexy clothes or doing anything that doesn’t involve snuggling a baby. Female celebrities whose only “sin” seems to be having spent the night at a man’s house are photographed and mocked, as if their behavior fell way outside of social norms. (Last time I checked, it’s generally not expected that single women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s should spend every night knitting on a porch while suitors come a-calling under the watchful eyes of their chaperones.)
Look, Bristol Palin is only a celebrity because she’s willing to give in to cultural demands that she apologize for having sex. Without that, she’s just another child of a politician. That our culture makes this demand—that we’re so hungry for it that we’ll elevate someone to a cultural icon simply because she fills it—tells you all you need to know. We’re in the throes of a cultural bout of misogyny, and its focus is on sex. And the people who pay the highest price are women whose access to abortion and contraception is threatened by this national game of “Shoot the Slut”.