NUMBER OF SHOCKING incidents have featured in the news recently. In one incident, primary school children simulated rape on school playgrounds in the ‘rape game’. Rather than being distressing to the children, the game provoked laughter. In another, teenagers circulated images of themselves having sex while maiming and mutilating small fish. Another describes a video circulated showing six schoolboys raping a girl.
A feminist analysis can offer important insights to help us understand this. Children are mirroring what is happening in the home and the society around them. The theme of sex must become a meaningful conversation in our organisations, schools, unions, homes and communities. It is not the preserve of women’s magazines or radio shows, with their articles on ‘how to keep your man happy in bed’ or campaigns about ‘safe sex’. It is a political issue that, left unexamined, further perpetuates patriarchy, misogyny and capitalist values of commodification, denigration and exploitation.
According to the dominant rules of social behaviour, which we learn in our homes and schools, sex is personal and private – the most intimate expression of love and devotion. It is about intimacy and trust, women are encouraged to be monogamous, loyal and faithful, and apparently these are the only options for ‘good girls.’ So sex and intimacy get conflated and collapsed. Presumably ‘good girls’ are henceforth rewarded with security, marriage and social standing (whatever this means).
Women are seen in relation to men – that is, in terms of their ability to ‘get’ and ‘keep’ a man. We are taught that desiring men is a defining feature of a ‘real woman’. So, to please the men we desire, we are encouraged to dress, speak and care in ways that don’t threaten their male privilege. We therefore take on the role of caregiver, nurturer, mother and wife unquestioningly. Taking on these roles is work, but in doing so we make the work invisible. This results in a situation in which the work we do is not valued, because it is defined as ‘private’ – given that it happens (mostly) at home, behind closed doors. this, we are told, is what it means to be a woman.
If this is the only social sanctioned option by which women can identify themselves, it could be argued that sex is a means of becoming visible and claiming power. Yet who and what is understood to be ‘sexy’ is shaped externally, most often by men, which reinforces the idea that for men power means having access to money, sex, youth and women’s bodies.
Sex and access to women become an overt proxy for male machismo, in the same way as fancy cars and cash. Women’s access to power is linked to having access to powerful men, with sex as a means to tap into existing power structures. Sex and access to it becomes a marker of status for both men and women.
This exploitation is reinforced through the pervasive sexualisation of women in the media. Often, the media presents sex as a way to attain the ‘good life’ and to have fun. Through this, the shared consumption of ‘sexy’ images of women in public spaces is entrenched. Often women’s bodies are sexualised as a way to sell commodities. At its most extreme, women’s bodies themselves become things to sell, to traffic, to consume. Sex work and trafficking of women are clear examples of the exploitation of women’s bodies for material gain.
Sex however is only one form of bodily and emotional intimacy. Other forms of intimacy include our love for our friends, family members, comrades, sisters, community and ultimately solidarity towards other human beings. All of these relationships sustain us, and through them we entrust our well-being to others and vice versa.
In part, sex gains power over us when it is treated as a proxy for trust, intimacy and security – obscuring its overtly political dimension. This is an individualised idea of sexual intimacy that privileges the notion that there is one type of relationship in which trust is especially important: a one-on-one type of intimacy between individuals who have sex. We are told that we should value and preserve this specific type of intimacy above all others. But in reality sex can – and often does – happen without intimacy or trust.
It is the prioritising the individual and male privilege at the heart of this conception of sex that makes it a private act. But is the ‘private’ not political? Is how, with whom, where we have sex not shaped by the public sphere? Our urban planning and transport determine how easily we move around our cities and hence who, how and where we meet.
Similarly, social dynamics such as theprovision of housing and the existing levels of unemployment and poverty determine how many people share a room. These material conditions are therefore instrumental to what has been defined as a ‘private’ act. Sex is a site where power and powerlessness are meted out. It can become a way of gaining and maintaining power over others, whether through fear or pleasure. Some of the most extreme forms of using sex in this way are through rape, incest, abuse and other forms of sexual violence. Rape statistics show that women are amongst the most vulnerable and have the highest rates of HIV prevalence.
Too often, discussion of the broader implications of sex is silenced, turned into a taboo and mythologised. Young girls and boys, women and men are forced into a space of silence, shame and compromise. This prevents us from speaking about the unequal power relations that shape society and are reflected back