The Dangers of American Sexual Prudishness




Is the US the world’s most uptight nation regarding sex? Maybe not the most, but certainly among them. For example, the US has more laws regulating sexual behavior than all European countries combined. US prudishness is so severe as to be deadly. To end sexual violence and harassment against women, something has to change.

Is America the World’s Most Uptight Nation When It Comes to Sex?

Less than half of girls and boys in the US have received the HPV vaccinations that can protect them from deadly cancers. Why? Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and discussing teen sexual activity is taboo. Many doctors refuse to recommend the vaccine because they are uncomfortable discussing STIs.

Related to this prudishness is the view that women’s bodies are purely sexual and therefore all female nudity is provocative and shameful. Even public breastfeeding makes most Americans uncomfortable because a woman’s breast is exposed.

This prudishness about women’s bodies claims to be “protecting” women. At its heart, however, it is about power rather than sex. The “protection” it provides is both seductive and insidious. Seductive, because many women find it comforting to imagine that men are protecting them from danger, even strangers such as legislators—insidious in its implications.

Whom do we protect? Children and adults who are too young, inexperienced, weak, or incompetent to protect themselves. Putting a normal adult woman into this category disempowers her, ensuring that someone else can dictate the most intimate conditions of her life: how she dresses, where she can go alone, whether she has final authority over her own body.

Prudishness also justifies a perceived division between “good” and “bad” women. The former are  modest, compliant and “covered up.” The latter, bold, proud, and independent. That separation buttresses men’s sense that they can treat “bad” women badly. Because the women are “out there,” they can be objectified, attacked, harassed, groped. The result is evident, as the tidal wave of sexual violence and harassment reports continues to grow.

Despite broad recognition of this public health epidemic and dedicated efforts to end sexual violence and harassment, few programs have been successful. The problem is that they are fighting an uphill battle against the prevailing social mores described above. If men are inherently more powerful than women and can define “good” and “bad” women, the only way to end sexual assault and harassment is to convince men they should not assault women. Otherwise, the only option is to mitigate the impact by convincing bystanders to intervene, or training women to defend themselves.

We need a completely new approach. Let’s consider societies with two striking cultural differences from the US. These cultures hold that women are equal to men and that women, from teenhood, should have complete control over their own bodies.

Consider the Kreung society of the lovely Ratanakiri (“Mountain of Jewels”) Province in Cambodia. The Kreung believe that healthy, loving marriages require women who are strong, self-assured, and have self-confidence about their sexuality. Parents help each teen daughter achieve this state by giving her a room of her own. She can invite a boy she likes to spend the night in her room. There, she makes all the rules and reigns supreme. Will they talk the night away? Sleep? Cuddle? Have sex? She alone decides. In this completely secure space, she is free to explore her own sexuality, to discover what pleases her. When she says, “No,” he obeys instantly, without argument or bad feelings. A boy who flouts this rule faces severe penalties from the entire community, as do his parents.

Take another interesting group, the Vanatinai, a small island society off New Guinea. There, women and men are equal in all major aspects of life: decision-making, ritual practices, spiritual power, property holdings, and sexual activity. By working hard to gain goods and giving them away through ritual generosity, anyone of any sex can become one of the authoritative and influential leaders known as “gia”. Everyone is free to engage in sex before marriage, to end a marriage, and to marry as often as, and with whomever, he or she wishes.

The result? Divorce is rare in these societies; sexual violence virtually unknown.

The Takeaway

Sexual violence and harassment are rooted in the very foundations of culture. It is not enough to tell men they should not indulge, or bystanders that they should intervene, or women that they should protect themselves. Ending sexual violence and harassment requires a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes and values, beginning with equality between women and men, and women’s complete control over their own bodies. This change includes ending the putative “protection” of women—including laws to restrict abortion, to regulate women’s attire in ways that are different from those for men, or other social and legal constraints that claim to “protect” but actually disempower and diminish women. Only such basic cultural and legal changes will make it possible to end sexual violence and harassment against women.

References

Cdc.gov. (2017). Sexual Violence: Prevention Strategies. [online] Available here.

Lepowsky, M. (1993). Fruit of the motherland. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mullin, E. The Cancer Vaccine That Too Many People Ignore. (2017). MIT Technology Review, 120 (6), pp.16-17.

Muong, V. (2014). ‘Love huts’ of Ratanakiri minorities: Is a tradition quietly slipping away?. The Phnom Penh Post.

Procida, R. and Simon, R. (2007). Global perspectives on social issues. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Image via frolicsomepl/Pixabay.

J Zarro Brodman

International development expert Janice Zarro Brodman is the author of "Sex Rules!: Astonishing Sexual Practices and Gender Roles Around the World." She has lived, worked or traveled in 35+ countries. After earning a PhD in political economy from Harvard University, she founded and directed the Center for Innovative Technologies at EDC, a global NGO. Her projects for the UN, World Bank, and other organizations have focused on women’s rights and economic growth.
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