I am about 2/3 of the way through journalist Emily Maguire’s novel Your Skirt’s Too Short and I have to say that I am quite surprised. Having been on a feminist reading kick the last few months I’ve read about 10 novels and what surprises me about what Maguire has written is that I am learning a lot about it. She has a way of simplifying somewhat complex theories so that they can be easily applied to my life. In the last three months I have read a lot about how some women feel so “empowered” working in the sex industry, as body part mannequins in rap videos, as porn props in some male fantasy, and the list goes on. It is quickly stated that these women made the free choice to participate and one is led to believe that they must feel sexually fulfilled. The first few times I heard that young women flashing their boobs are empowered I was shocked; however, the arguments against it were often somewhat complex and not easy to reciprocate. The most common was that a vast majority of women who find themselves using their physical body to pay the rent often feel as if they don’t have any other options as monetarily comparable. I could get into statistics here but they are not hard to find and that is not what I want to write about. Maguire succinctly destroyed this so called “empowerment” argument: “If all this is so empowering, why the hell aren’t men doing it? How come men manage to control the political, legal and business worlds without having first been empowered by taking off their clothes for magazines, pole-dancing or submitting to spousal authority?” Check to the mate. It’s a bit much for a bumper sticker but I’d rather my car advertised this message than those stupid surf stickers that won’t come off the window. Being empowered means that the individual makes a choice for themselves not based out of desperation but in search of personal fulfillment. Being sexually abused, being bombarded with the message that your net worth is equivalent to your physical attractiveness, and having your sexuality constantly judged and questioned by everyone and their senator does not create a culture where women have free choice. Period.
On rare occasion I find myself in a toy store shopping for a gift for a friend’s child. As enthralling as all the displays, colors and sounds are for children, these places never emanate fun for me. Clearly gendered I must quickly decide whether I am shopping for the pink, frilly and apparently more delicate sex or the adventurous, blue and more rugged sex. In one aisle I am bombarded with mini tool sets, hot wheels, legos and army toys and in the other I am hypnotized by easy bake ovens, rail thin barbies, make up kits and gowns. Intelligence is barely required to see the message directed at our children. Boys are the builders, the explorers, the ones behind the wheel and girls are the homemakers, the nurturers, the physically aware. Products are marketed with an either/or mentality which leaves no room for the immeasurable variability and stifles the creativity and open-mindedness that is childhood. Here, expectations and roles of each gender are as clear as night and day. Even most fairytales support this black and white rhetoric, implying that a princess’s most honorable achievement is in convincing a brave hero to rescue her. “A princess wants, or believes she needs, a man to protect her, not necessarily from physical harm, but from hard work, drudgery and responsibility.” Maguire explains how this creates a culture where “the best way for a woman to get by in life is to cater to male desires.” While one might say that marketing makeup to a 5 year old is cute and innocent because it allows them to express creativity by altering their appearance, it won’t be too long before the reason they are wearing makeup is no longer for themselves but for the male attention they are told they should want. The double edged sword is that girls are sexualized from a young age but then when their hormones kick in any display of sexuality is often met with public scrutiny.
“The fact that male sexuality is not feared and restricted like female sexuality is evident in the way our culture looks at teenagers.” Maguire further explains that while there is no doubt that female clothing in general tends to reveal much more skin, males leaving the house with their jeans below their butt don’t receive the panic a female might receive for a short skirt. While baggy pants might look ridiculous the adults in his life aren’t worried that his appearance might come off as him “asking for it”. The mentality here is that it is only a female’s outfit that makes a sweeping statement about her sexual availability. This cultural mindset takes power away from a female’s words. It’s not hard to see how we go from blaming women for how they are dressed when they complain about sexual harassment to then blaming them for walking alone at night, having an alcoholic drink or just trusting another human being when they are raped. This social stigmatization towards a female’s sexuality allows her culture to feel justified in blaming her for other’s reprehensible actions against her. In turn this society does not have to take accountability and ask itself why men in its culture feel entitled to women’s bodies.
Maguire has a lot to say about sexuality. She wasn’t afraid to display her sexual assertiveness and because of that she received a lot of ridicule. Messages that sexual desire is a male trait are extremely unfounded and lead to shame and unhealthy female sexual repression. One of my favorite lines is when Maguire defines a slut: “A mythical creature dreamt up by people who are jealous of or threatened by female sexual expression.” Not only does that fit on a bumper sticker, but it would also fit nicely on a shirt or in everyday dialogue. ‘Slut shaming’ is an example of the sexual revolutions set back. It is often believed that women in developed countries now have complete sexual freedom. It’s not hard to see that when malecentric pornography has become so mainstream that women get anxious about not being “fuckable” if they don’t have their vagina regularly waxed that something has gone way way wrong. How ironic that the messages young girls receive today encourage them to grow up in a physical sense yet then encourage them to pay lots of money to have their vagina manicured to return it to a childlike state when they are adults. Degrading and inaccurate pornography isn’t the only misogynistic approach to sex out there. Sex education taught in public schools never even has to mention the vulva (where the clitoris is-and where most females experience sexual pleasure). Girls are taught how to get men off before they know how to get themselves off. By teaching sex as a one act type deal in which pregnancy might occur our educators are putting male sexual pleasure above a female’s. In my classes we learned a ton about the reproductive system and how babies develop in the womb; however, sexual pleasure while implied for the males was never even mentioned to us females. I can sum up my education as this: You are going to bleed from your vagina on a regular basis, here’s how you cover up all that yuckiness so that you can just ignore it and get on with your life, one day you’ll finally give in and have sex which means a man will put his penis inside your vagina and you need to protect yourself, and if all goes well one day you will decide to have a baby and take extra good care of yourself because as a woman you have no more societal worth than as a mother and everything you do from this point on is under even more intense scrutiny than what you experience now, yeah if you think you are facing a lot of judgment as a teenager you are in for one hell of a shock.
Maguire explains how female sexuality is commonly divided into two categories. The first one is the car battery theory which is the common belief that a woman’s sexuality “can only be used so many times before it runs out.” The second one is the mindset that a woman’s sexuality is like a car in that “its value decreases with time.” Both of these theories rest on the harmful “idea that a vagina has a severely limited life-span.” Sexually assertive women have been termed “loose” as a way of denigrating their appeal, implying to others that the “overuse” of these women’s vaginas has made them loose and unsavory, a side effect these women are going to have to live with for the rest of their lives. How should I put this nicely? That is a crock of shit. Shaming women for their desires is a tactic for the weak minded, ignorant bigots who certainly give themselves more credit than they deserve because, no penis is large enough to stretch the vaginal walls permanently. Also, if a woman is having pleasurable sex (and if you didn’t catch my drift in the last paragraph, this often involves far more than penis in vagina) orgasmic contractions result in a tighter muscle tone in the vagina. Whether it’s name calling, the dissemination of incorrect information that paints female sexuality in an unhealthy light, or simple omission of the facts that would teach girls that it’s ok to explore their own pleasure women’s sexuality remains far from free. This freedom will not be achieved until “their sexual expression is understood separately from the desires of men.”