Monthly Archives: September 2011

Saudi Women Can Vote. West, Middle East Can Learn From Each Other

Saudi women got the right to vote and run in municipal elections this week. It’s a big step forward.

There are limitations. It’s hard to run for office when you can’t drive or show your face. Some fear political stalling. And men could keep their wives and daughters from voting. But the women are optimistic. Let’s hope for the best.

Interestingly, only about five years ago George W. Bush sent Karen Hughes to Saudi Arabia to express her hope that one day Saudi women would be able to vote and drive. She was surprised when many said they didn’t want to do either.

Past relations between Western and Middle Eastern feminists have sometimes been strained with Western feminists lecturing Middle Eastern women, and Middle Eastern women rejecting what they see as Western arrogance.

Yet the road to women’s rights presents plenty of opportunity for all of us to learn from one another.

There is plenty that Westerners could have, and may have, learned from our Arabian sisters and brothers in the early years of Islam. When we were in the Dark Ages.

Back in the 7th century the Koran gave women the right to work, own property and inherit, and provided protections from domestic violence. Women were also granted the right to give their consent to marry.

But lately Arab women have been taking some cues from us.  Both the Arab Spring and Saudi women’s suffrage were inspired by Western democracies.

And perhaps now it is time for us to learn from them, again. The Arab Spring has inspired many Americans who wonder at our current state of democracy which is marked by legalized bribery (large campaign contributions) that make important matters like environmental sustainability and economic renewal political impossibilities.

Too often Western women think they have nothing to learn from their Middle Eastern sisters, while Middle Eastern women reject Western notions out of hand.

Perhaps we would do better to have dialogue and learn from each other.

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Hit the Least Attractive Woman with an Egg

The women are blindfolded and lined up with bulls-eyes on their backs, waiting to be judged “least attractive” on an episode of Bachelor Pad.

Go ahead men, take a paint-filled egg and hit the woman you find least appealing.

With each strike the show’s host announces the intended target, and whether the shot was successful. Erica, on the far right, takes about half the hits. Some of the eggs are thrown pretty hard, but after taking her blindfold off and emerging a stigmatized canvass, Erica lamented,

Being hit by the eggs was painful, but emotionally it was more painful to have the guys say they’re not attracted to me. So now all the girls can feel more attractive than me… better than me.

You can see the video here.

What a way to treat another human being.

Mostly ignoring the women’s feelings, the men worried more about missing needed points. “I didn’t follow through. I kind of like ‘popped’ the egg, and it went right over her shoulder,” bleated one contestant.

A sadistic streak comes into view as the contestants blithely wound each other.

Mercifully, this summer series has ended. And discussing it now won’t serve to make the show more popular.

It should be said that the men took their turn as targets, too, but beauty-connected rejection is probably harder on women since they are taught that their looks measure their worth. Another sad commentary on our society.

Meanwhile, like most of us, egg-splattered Erica didn’t think to question our cultural beauty notions, even though they are not absolute, and change over time. As Gwen Sharp at Sociological Images observes:

In (Erica’s) attempt to defend herself she doesn’t question beauty standards, but refocuses them, pointing to another woman who is “way bigger” and not “that pretty.”

Ms. Sharp explains that this just reaffirms the idea that body size is a legitimate measure of attractiveness (bigger making you less attractive). The comparison also means that self-esteem “Must come at the expense of other women, with whom they are always, and inevitably, in competition,” she adds.

One of the hosts eventually came out to lend the appearance of humanity, saying, “Erica, every person here is beautiful” (measured by our cultural standard, of course).

Erica no doubt felt beautiful after that.

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Does Provocative Dress Ever Cause Rape?

Some friends were discussing the “Slut Walks” that keep popping up, and someone asked whether provocative clothing ever plays a role in rape. Interesting that “provocative” is used to describe a style of dress, suggesting that clothes actually provoke something. Attention? Desire? Rape?

Women don’t cause rape by what they wear. Asking about correlation between clothing and rape is tricky, though.

To make clear, sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Someone has to act to commit rape. No one forces that choice. If seeing an enticing woman led men to conclude, “I’ve got to rape her,” all men would be rapists. Yet few are.

And plenty of assaulted women are not dressed sexily, including women draped in head-to-toe burqas. Interestingly, veiled women are blamed, too: “He must have seen a bit of her ankle, wrist, hair, neck… Who could resist!?”

Strippers are the most sexually “provocative” of all, yet patrons manage to contain themselves. Yes, bouncers provide security, but they aren’t stationed with blinders blocking their sight. And who’s watching them? Male customers aren’t physically restrained. The men are actually controlling themselves.

Sociologists who have interviewed rapists, read their accounts and looked at the circumstances of their crimes have learned that they have a variety of motives. Here are a few:

Some rape to feel powerful, others gang rape to demonstrate their “manhood” (defined as powerful, dominant, violent, virile, and not gay) to each other and fraternally bond, some become aroused by sadistically bringing sex and violence together, others seek to harm an entire race, community or nation by using sexual assault as a political weapon, still others seek revenge against someone other than the rape victim. And some misread cues.

Let’s take a look at these mistaken cue readers. Here’s where it gets tricky because a correlation between clothing and rape is not the same thing as sexy clothing causing assault.

Rapists who misread cues believe the following: men are naturally assertive and women are naturally passive. There are “good girls” and “bad girls.” Bad girls secretly want sex but can’t admit it, so they trick men into forcing sex. How do these “bad girls” send cues (in these men’s minds)? By doing things like smiling at them, or making eye contact, or by showing a little leg or cleavage. So these men may see a low-cut blouse as a “rape me” signal. But while they also see a smile or eye contact as a sexual come-on, women are only blamed for the dress. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Never look at a man,” or “Never smile at a man, he may rape you!”

Women, if you think dressing modestly  will protect you, it won’t. Most rapists don’t care about “cues,” and just in case you run into those who do, you better not look at, or smile at, any man either. Just to be safe.

Should you really have to live that way? Or should men choose not to rape? As most do?

The number of assaults will not go down if women make sure to cover up. The cue-reading rapist has decided to attack someone, and is seeking justification. He will rape and he will find something to blame other than himself.

By placing women in charge of his sexuality he abdicates responsibility (it’s her fault). How convenient for him!

And while different rapists have different ways of thinking, they are all sexist. At the least, they believe they have more right to a woman’s body than a woman does, herself.

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Orgasm: It’s All in the Mind

Thirty to forty percent of women have trouble reaching orgasm, thanks to a culture that represses women’s sexuality.

Others can climax via thought alone.

What we’ve learned from the mind-only technique could help women experiencing sexual difficulty.

Using brain scans, Dr. Barry Komisaruk found that some women can climax from “a combination of breathing exercises and fantasy, while others use their imagination and pelvic floor exercises.” He explained, “Some imagined erotic scenarios, but others imagined very romantic scenes such as a lover whispering to them. Others pictured more abstract sensual experiences, such as walking along a beach or imagining waves of energy moving through their body.

“There’s been a lot of focus on the body and our physical responses,” Komisaruk continued, “but for many people, and women in particular, the mind plays an even more important role.”

Physical stimulation seems to be more vital for men than for women, who require the right ambience, mood and relaxation.

As women move toward orgasm the parts of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety and emotion relax and lower in activity. (Men’s emotional centers also deactivate, but less intensely.) At orgasm the emotion centers effectively close down and women move into an almost trance-like state.

That emotion shuts down at the critical point is interesting, since so many women say they need to feel emotionally connected to enjoy sex. Contradictory? Maybe not. Sex therapist Paula Hall points out that “women in particular need to feel relaxed and safe in order to let go and enjoy sex fully,” and feeling emotionally connected and safe might get them there.

Relaxation is helpful for both men and women. Perhaps that is why orgasm comes more easily when they keep their socks on. In experiments, cold feet kept orgasm rate down to 50 percent. Add socks, and the rate went to 80 percent. Cold is not relaxing.

All of this resonates with techniques suggested by sex therapist, Lonnie Barbach. In one recommendation, she tells non-orgasmic women to touch themselves just to discover how their bodies feel, but making sure not to come to orgasm.

Two things happen here. Unworried about meeting a goal, stress is minimized. And as bodily sensation becomes the focus the women cease to be distracted by other things, including worries about coming.

Which suggests some advice to men: If you constantly ask a woman if she’s coming, do you really think she will? Not a good technique for avoiding anxiety.

Jill Morrison discovered her ability the for mind-only climax one day as she lay with her husband before making love. “He wasn’t even touching me, but I felt very relaxed and I found my mind slipping into a wonderful and relaxed sexual ‘zone’ where I could see myself lying in a sexually abandoned position, naked, having let go of all the stresses in my normal life,” she related. “To my absolute amazement, I had an orgasm there and then, without any kind of stimulation beyond my mental concentration. 

“In my view,” she says, “sex for women is 90 percent in the mind. It’s about concentrating purely on the physical pleasure and removing myself from all the complications of relationships. It’s very liberating!” She adds, “The more you do it, the better you become.”

Interesting advice.

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Sources of Power in Relationships

There are many sources of power in relationships, but a few stand out:

1. Higher education, income, and occupational status, especially in marriage relationships when men make more money. Both partners tend to feel that a man should have more say since he contributes greater resources to the family.

When wives are economically dependent and fear they can’t support themselves, husbands can become especially powerful. Some abusive men purposely get their wives pregnant (by destroying their birth control) to increase their wives’ dependency – and their control over their partners.

Women are less likely to become more powerful when they make more money because they generally don’t want to diminish their partners.

2. Relationship options. Perhaps a woman is economically dependent, but she is beautiful and she knows it. She also knows that if she leaves the relationship, she can quickly find someone else. This gives her a lot of clout.

3. Traditional gender roles. People who hold traditional notions about gender are more likely to accept male authority. While our society has achieved greater equality, men still typically have a bit more power in relationships.

Interestingly, young men today more often say they prefer equal partnerships.

4. Strong personalities. Even among the traditional-minded, some women just have stronger personalities. The couple will often deem the man, “head of home” when really, the woman is in charge.

5. Whoever cares least about the relationship has more power because the partner who cares more is more likely to cave in.

There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand it may simply be a sad, but true, fact of life.

Yet there may be some poetic justice. If one person is poorly treated, he or she will be more likely to leave. And this can create an incentive to change. If the relationship moves back into a better balance of happiness, equality can be regained.

This was origninally posted Sept. 22, 2010

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Do Women Like Sex Less Than Men?

9-Treatments-for-Sexual-Dysfunction-in-Women_full_article_verticalResponses to my post asking why women like sex less than men included:

  • Says who?
  • I think it’s the opposite – I think women like it more
  • I don’t think anyone can know who likes sex better

Or as one man put it,

The overwhelming majority of men and women get their attitudes and desires for sex primarily through the natural, healthy desire to have sex… Women are equal to men and thus capable of every form of behavior that men engage in.

To which I respond: no and yes.

Women are certainly capable of enjoying sex immensely. Given their capacity for multiple orgasm, perhaps more. In some societies women are highly orgasmic and take pleasure in engaging in sex with great frequency, as did Tahitian and American Indian women before contact with Europeans.

But highly orgasmic American women? Not so much. Forty-three percent suffer from sexual dysfunction.

While the experience of orgasm is similar for women and men, women are less likely to have one. Sociologist Michael Kimmel surveyed college students on their most recent hookup (where actual sex may or may not have occurred). Only 44% of the men reported having an orgasm. Bad enough. But only 19% of the women did.

Expanding beyond hookups, an Indiana University survey found that 91% of men had an orgasm the last time they had sex but only 64% of women did. And only 58% of women in their 20s had an orgasm in their last encounter.

And orgasm seems to correlate with sexual enjoyment with 66% of women saying they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit” while 83% of men did.

Modern American women also have a weaker sex drive, compared with men, with more than one quarter of young women feeling only weak desire according to the Archives of Internal Medicine. Research at the University of Chicago found that 32% of women
(but only 15 -17% of men) have low libidos.

Not surprisingly, 40% of men say they would like to have more sex than they do now, but
only 28% of women feel the same way.

Men don’t want to believe that women are less likely than them to enjoy sex. And women feel insulted if anyone suggests as much.

As I said, women are certainly capable of having great sex. But the extent to which they actually do depends on factors other than just what nature brings them. Repression plays a role as women get labeled sluts and ho’s for indulging. Sexual objectification can leave women more focused on how they look than how they feel. And male dominance takes a toll when it takes the form of rape, incest and child sexual abuse. I’ll explore all this is greater depth in future posts.

Women and men must both deal with a prudish society. But women must also contend with sexism. Still, many think our society has no negative effect. Maybe that’s why we don’t do anything to create change.

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Testosterone Damages Verbal Skill. Yet We Have Shakespeare

Penn State psychologists assert that career choice begins in utero, hinging on exposure to sex hormones in the womb. Since testosterone damages both verbal and social skills, it simply makes sense that women would seek people-oriented jobs, while testosterone-soaked males would veer toward non-people pursuits like the hard sciences, right? Indeed, the psychologists found that girls exposed to elevated levels of testosterone in utero (CAH individuals) were more likely to express masculine interests.

But as Bryan Lowder over at Slate’s XX Factor, points out, you can’t exclude nurture’s effects since girls who exhibit more biologically masculine characteristics might be treated in more masculine ways.

Thinking more on biological determinism, many think men are wired to excel in math – and more American males do score at the very top on standardized tests. But the difference disappears among Japanese women and men. In Iceland the pattern reverses, with women achieving the highest scores. Culture is clearly in play.

Moving to spatial skills, men are again thought superior. But what if men and women who had never before seen puzzles were asked to put them together? Turns out that in one patrilineal community tribal men were 36% faster than the women. But among those living in a matrilineal tribe, women and men finished in a dead heat.

Or, Larry Summers famously proposed that females trailed males in making tenure as Harvard science professors, in part because men are better wired for science. Yet in 2011 girls swept the Google Science Fair.

Factors like roles, internalization and discrimination can affect success outcomes. But brains may even structure differently because girls and boys are treated in different ways. Stanford biologist, Joan Roughgarden, says the discovery that the brain’s structure and function changes in response to our experiences revolutionized neuroscience:

It’s not hard to believe that differences between the brains of male and female adults have nothing to do with genes or the Y chromosome but may be the biological expression of different social settings.

Biology is often used to justify the status quo or to discriminate. I suspect we make too much of it.

Testosterone in utero is said to have damaging effects on social skills. Yet we have Bill Clinton.

Testosterone in utero is said to have damaging effects on verbal skills. Yet we have Shakespeare. And his career choice.

If scientists had found that estrogen, and not testosterone, damaged verbal ability, we’d all hear that this is why we have no “women Shakespeares.”

Men have historically had the opportunity to demonstrate that they “can” even if biology suggests they “can’t” (or not as well). Women have not been so lucky.

Ms. Magazine reposted this piece on their blog October 3, 2011

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Women as Bunnies: TV Falls Back

While the new fall television lineup is showcasing plenty of strong women – including Christina Applegate, Zooey Deschanel, Debra Messing, Chelsea Handler, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Kristin Chenoweth – there’s an undercurrent of anti-feminist backlash – which is oddly pitched as feminist.

We’ve got Charlies Angels, who are all wet within the first 15 minutes.

Pan Am offers a throwback to air travel’s “‘good old days’ when women didn’t sit in First Class, they just served men who did,” observed New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. Stewardesses strut, Stepford style, “Uniform in every sense of the word. Young, pretty, thin and unmarried, well-groomed and white-gloved… and offering blank smiles of compliance,” says Caitlin Flanagan at the Wall Street Journal.

Not unlike the bunnies who populate The Playboy Club, a show pitched as being all about female empowerment. That’s right. Scantily clad in painful costumes, living in a world where women seemingly exist for the sole purpose of arousing men and being ogled by them. But that’s not demeaning, the producers insist. They’re bunnies, not centerfolds – as though that marks an important difference. Meanwhile the bunnies nakedly play in a pool as men watch them “as if at SeaWorld, only much, much better.”

One observer asked, “Is there something just a little weird about women objectifying themselves (and other women) in the name of empowerment?”

Men are subject. Women, object. Men are human. Women are bunnies, who sometimes reemerge as sea life. Dowd quotes one TV producer describing it all as:

A hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away.

Female empowerment, indeed.

When The Playboy Club’s star bunny was asked at press conference how the show empowered women, she supposed, “It’s just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality.” But does this show encourage women’s sexual enjoyment, or are they primarily objects in service of others’ desire?

Sold as female empowerment, the shows serve up a subversive message.

Still, the fact that these programs are even posing as feminist suggests we’ve come a long way, baby!

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School District Allegedly Expelled 7th-Grader for Reporting Her Rape

by Christie Thompson @ The Ms Magazine Blog

The Republic School District in Springfield, MO, is facing a lawsuit for allegedly ignoring a young victim’s multiple rapes and then expelling her for reporting her attacker. The story is yet another awful example of the victim-blaming culture surrounding  rape in schools. Like the recent story of the young cheerleader in  Texas–who was kicked off the squad for refusing to cheer on her  rapist–it seems that schools too often victimize the very students  they should be protecting.

According to the lawsuit [PDF], a 7th-grade special-needs student had been repeatedly harassed and assaulted by a male classmate, which escalated into him raping her on their middle school campus. When the victim reported it, school officials allegedly told the girl during their first meeting that they did not believe her. They allegedly failed to refer her to a counselor or sexual assault forensic examiner or to report her rapist to county authorities, as Missouri state law would mandate.

Instead, the lawsuit says, she was coerced into taking back her allegations, as well as made to write and hand-deliver an apology letter to her attacker. School officials allegedly expelled her from school for the rest of the year and referred her to juvenile authorities for filing a false report.

She was allowed to return to school the next fall only, she says, to face once again verbal and physical harassment from her attacker, which she kept silent about for fear of being further punished. Then, the lawsuit reports:

On or about February 16, 2010 … not being subject to any surveillance  or monitoring, [the attacker] was able to hunt her down, drag her to the  back of the school library, and again forcibly rape her.

When she finally came forward about the incident, the school allegedly again expressed skepticism and failed to take action. Her mother took the girl to complete a rape kit, which confirmed sexual assault, and the DNA results matched the accused. He pleaded guilty to the charges and is serving time in juvenile detention.

Even then, the lawsuit days, the school board inexplicably still suspended the the victim for “disrespectful conduct” and “public display of affection.”

While the lawsuit, filed July 29, has yet to be decided, here is what we do know: The victim was raped at least once by the young man she identified as her attacker. The school district continues to deny this and accuse the victim of lying about it.

It’s hard to see motivate a young girl to fabricate multiple rapes, given the secondary trauma she went through in reporting them. It’s easier to imagine why a school district might be reluctant to admit a rape had occurred on supposedly supervised school grounds.

Most upsetting is the way the school district has attempted to  trivialize the victim’s claims, going so far as to blame the special-needs seventh-grader for not better protecting herself from being  raped at school. It has dismissed the victim’s accusations of truly egregious misconduct as “frivolous,” saying that the student  “failed and neglected to use reasonable means to protect her self.” Take a moment to ponder what “reasonable means” 7th-graders are supposed to be taking to protect themselves from rape on school grounds. Karate lessons?

When will school authorities stop persecuting and start protecting young victims of sexual assault? Join Broadblogs, Ms. and Change.org in supporting the victim and holding the Republic School District accountable. Click here.

This piece originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine Blog

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Christians for Gay Rights

At churches, schools, and shopping centers volunteers are gathering signatures to repeal California’s new law requiring public schools to include gay people and gay rights milestones in school lessons, according to Lisa Leff, at the Associated Press.

The referendum is being led by less-experienced Christian conservatives since the Mormon and Catholic churches, who led the fight against gay marriage, have not joined forces.

Turns out, not all Christians seek laws to limit gays or keep them in the closet.

Having heard the battle cry, “Gays are against God!” some students from my Women’s Perspective club hoped to gain greater insight by visiting with the Christian club on campus.

We visited a lot of clubs, on numerous issues, hoping to take in various points of view. So we took a turn with “The Upside Down Club,” so named because they felt their ideas were the reverse of society’s.

This group surprised us more than any other.

When we asked how they, as Christians, felt about legislating against gay rights, they said they were against it.

Why?

“We believe in the separation of church and state,” offered one student. “I am personally against gay marriage, but feel that no one’s religious beliefs should be deemed the law of the land. We shouldn’t force our beliefs on everyone else.”

Others said there was a conflict between anti-gay passages in the Bible and “love thy neighbor,” which they felt was the higher law.

In my classes, some Christian students were for gay marriage because they had learned how it would help families. After all, without marriage children may not be able to visit a sick parent in the hospital, they can lose out on social security or inheritance if a parent dies, they aren’t guaranteed child support if parents separate, and mom and dad aren’t given job-protected time to care for a new child. So gay marriage strengthens families.

Along this vein, some Mormons belong to an organization called Mormons for Marriage, which promotes gay nuptials with the slogan, “Family! It’s About Time.” They feel that marriage will be strengthened, not weakened when gay couples have the same civil rights as heterosexuals. I can relate. I know several couples who divorced because one spouse was straight and the other was gay. The relationships were unstable and the breakups certainly weren’t good for families.

From time to time, students in my classes have apologized for the intolerance of other Christians, who get so much publicity.

Nice to see these folks truly living the Golden Rule.

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