The Control of Female Sexuality

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The “sexual revolution” opened the way for greater expression and practise of female sexuality, at least in Western cultures. However, society has historically and still does exert control over female sexuality. This control, in fact, underlies men’s general control of women in society. Such control is accomplished through gender definition and social pressure, and economic and political oppression.

First, women are conditioned to certain, often oppressive, gender roles by hegemonically male society. Connell (1995) first introduced the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ as a description of the most valued definition of manhood in a given society. He held that whilst in any society there are many possible types of masculinity, only a few will be the most valued or “ideal” (Connell, 1995). Society then provides power and benefit to males fitting in this hegemonic definition, establishing their dominance in relation to what is considered feminine and in relation to other, less ideal masculinities. As such, hegemonic masculinity becomes justification for both the hegemonically masculine man’s domination of women and over other men (Cohn and Weber, 1999).

For example, Butler (1990) found that most women are trained from early childhood that caring for a home and family are appropriate women’s activities. She describes how little girls are given dolls and encouraged to nurture, versus little boys who are given blocks and encouraged to build things. Certain behaviours are also considered acceptable for girls but not boys, and vice versa. Girls are allowed to cry and be more emotionally expressive in their gender roles. Boys are allowed to be more aggressive and assertive (Butler, 1990). In terms of female sexuality, girls are often taught to be “little ladies,” who do not spread their legs whilst wearing a dress or express their sexuality. Female sexuality is presented as something to be guarded, and young women are encouraged to be “good girls.” Such gender roles are reinforced by various authority figures, such as teachers and parents. Barnes (2003) finds social workers, for example, will often assume a “disciplinary gaze” to communicate their understandings of appropriate behaviour for women, typically reinforcing traditional gender roles (149).

Gender roles tend to be more strongly reinforced and women’s sexuality typically more constrained when opportunities for women outside the home expand. For example, during World War II, when many women occupied jobs traditionally held by men, there is strong reference in the media regarding chaste women as “patriotic” (Hegarty, 1998). “‘Promiscious’ female sexuality became a prime target during wartime” (Hegarty 1998, 115). Acceptable male behaviour of the same period, however, included “drinking, gambling, fighting, and picking up women” (Hegarty, 1998, 121).

Hegarty (1998) describes in society how the “virtuous wife / mother and virginial daughter, devoted to domestic pursuits in their place – the home” is often presented as “a symbolic measure of social stability” (113). Sexually open women, in contrast, are considered “deviant” and refered to by negative language such as “slut,” “whore,” and “prostitute.” There are few negative words in the English language that refer to a sexually open man. Male virgins are often a subject of ridicule in movies and television, whilst promiscious women have historically been portrayed in the media and in culture as destructive to individuals and society, and as spreaders of venereal disease (Hegarty, 1998).

These gender roles, embedded in Western society and reinforced through family, authority figures, and the media, create social pressures that exert control over women’s sexual activity. Whilst there has certainly been a relaxation of attitudes towards sex in recent decades, women are still expected to exert more restraint and control than men regarding their sexuality and sexual practices, and are more likely to be judged or condemned for sexual openness.

Economic and political oppression is another way that female sexuality is controlled. In some cultures and countries, this is through political legislation or religious rules. For example, women in many Arab countries, such as Saudia Arabia, are not legally allowed to vote, drive cars, or own property (Berk, 1985). Religious restrictions in some Muslim countries even prevent women from wearing anything but a very loose garment or from uncovering their heads in public, lest they “entice” a man. This strongly portrays such reaction from men to women’s appearance as the woman’s fault. Such practice occurs in Western society to a lesser extent, although not regluated by legislation. Victims of rape, for example, are often portrayed as enticingly dressed or “loose” in their sexual expressions as justification for such crimes (Butler, 1990).

A number of countries with strong religious foundations for their governments also directly legislate birth control and abortions, thereby exerting political control over female sexuality. Many countries with Muslim or Catholic foundations to their government restrict the use of birth control and do not allow abortions for any reason (Butler, 1990). As such, these governments control female sexuality, as women must then be concerned regarding unwanted pregnancy, often curtailing their sexual activity. Men obviously do not face such issues, and are therefore less curtailed by such laws (Butler, 1990).

Economically, unequal vocational opportunities and a social responsibility for housework place many women in a dependent state on the men in their lives. A woman with small children and little work experience, for example, is in a much more difficult economic condition to leave her husband or make decisions contrary to his wishes (Berk, 1985). Baxter (2001), in review of multiple studies on gender and housework , concludes “women do a much larger proportion of child care and routine indoor housework tasks than men, regardless of marital status,” educational attainment, or vocational duties (19). Such duties leave them in an economically dependent state, where their sexual wishes are often subverted to accomodate the men on whom they depend (Oakley, 1974).

Acceptable expression of sexuality, therefore, becomes one that is either controlled by or designed to serve men (Butler, 1990). For example, pictures of attractive women provacatively dressed in popular magazines serve as both a reinforcement to women that their attractiveness to men is of prime importance, and provide men with stimulating pictures. Hawkesworth (1997) contends that many men would be happy to look at such pictures, but not for their wives or daughters to dress or portray themselves as such in public. As such, women are constrained to dress or behave a certain way at the bidding of men, not as a direct expression of their own wants or desires (Hawkesworth, 1997)

Such social pressure, political and economic oppression allow not only control of women’s sexuality, but of a more general control of women by men in society. As social systems were typically designed by men and with their best interests in mind (such as the wife staying home to ‘serve’ her husband, whilst he participates in career and other interests and even equally employed women retaining responsiblity for many hours of unpaid household labour each week), the control of women and keeping of them “in their place” becomes a need in regard to stability (Oakely, 1974, Hegarty, 1998). Expressions of women that conflict with such traditional power relationships, including that of female sexuality, therefore threaten both the fabric of society and the power position of men within it.


Barnes, A. 2003. Social Work, Young Women, and Femininity. Affilia, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 2003, pp. 148-164.

Baxter, J. 2001. Marital status and the division of household labour. Family Matters, Vol. 58, Autumn 2001, pp. 16-21.

Berk, S. F. 1985. The Gender Factory. Plenum: New York.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: London.

Cohn, C., Weber, C. 1999. Missions, Men and Masculinities. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1999, pp. 460-475.

Connell, R. 1995. Masculinities. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Hawkesworth, M. 1997. Confounding Gender. Signs, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 1997, pp. 649-685.

Hegarty, M. 1998. Patriot or prostitute? Sexual discourses, print media, and American women during World War II. Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 112-36.

Oakley, A. 1974. Housewife. Pantheon: London.

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