We Must Remove Desexualization From Equality

Jessica+Hanley%2FThe+Observer

Jessica Hanley/The Observer

By RACHEL SHMULEVICH

Gender equality is a battle which it seems we’ll always be fighting—or at least for many years to come—and with every step forward, there’s almost as many opponents pushing us back. The question here isn’t whether or not equality is possible, but it’s whether the overwhelming mindset of Americans allows for it.

Jessica Hanley/The Observer
Jessica Hanley/The Observer

The fact that the place where women enjoyed the greatest equality was Communist Russia is telling. As compared to their European and American counterparts, women in the USSR enjoyed greater freedom: They were expected to not only be wives and mothers, but also to work just as hard as men in professions that were just as demanding (my grandmother worked as an electrical engineer, for instance). And while it’s been disputed whether women and men were truly equal, there’s no denying that they had it better than women elsewhere in the world at the time—and in some ways, better than a lot of women have it today. But there was a drawback to this equality: it could only be achieved through the systematic desexualization of women.

I won’t pretend to know what North Korea’s motives behind mandating certain approved hairstyles are, but this preoccupation with something as seemingly trivial as appearance brings to mind the USSR, and their tight control of sex and sexuality: Sex education was practically non existent, sex was considered a taboo topic, and the actual act was painted as any other responsibility at work—having children was necessary, it was a task, and it was one devoid of any enjoyment.

Sexuality—however a woman chooses to express it—is linked to her identity, and by instituting policies of desexualization, women are losing that part of themselves. It’s not the only indicator of who we are, but it’s a huge part of how we define ourselves. Desexualization and the hyper-sexualized practice of objectifying a woman’s body are on opposite sides of the spectrum of oppressing women, but they’re still on the same spectrum; Many would have us believe that removing sexuality from the equation is freeing, but it’s just another form of suppression.

The basic reasoning behind cases like the USSR and North Korea seems to be that women can be equal to men, but only when they cease to be women.

According to Katerina Tsetsura’s 2012 article in Public Relations Journal, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sex and sexuality once again became part of the discourse and culture in Russia, and as a result, the country saw the rise of instances of sexual harassment and an emerging trend (now a full-blown one) of the commercialization of the female body. This sounds familiar; the United States is a place fraught with rape culture, double standards and the systematic suppression and commoditization of women. Just look at the Steubenville, Ohio rape case from 2012, in which reporters flocked to mourn the lost bright futures of the two football players, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, who raped and assaulted an underage girl, instead of rushing to defend the victim and think what effect the rapists’ actions would have on her life and future. Many even blamed the girl for her own rape, claiming that the then sixteen-year old, who appeared unconscious in videos that the rapists took of her, brought it on herself.

Look too, at any number of commercials and advertisements that use a woman’s body to sell a product: Carl’s Jr.’s, for example, always feature half-naked women advertising their burgers, a campaign that started with Paris Hilton’s now famous 2005 ad in which she was shown washing a car in a swimsuit and a pair of heels.

While the causes of this are many and varied, female sexuality is never too far behind. Bill O’Reilly made this all the more obvious when, in March, he stated that Beyoncé was a poor role model for girls because she “glorifies having sex” and dances and dresses provocatively, a statement which drew the support of many. Beyoncé, a woman who has consistently spoken for equality and has become one of the most important spokespeople for the Ban Bossy campaign, is seen by many as a poor role model simply because of her sexuality. It seems ridiculous, but unfortunately, it’s something that happens all too often.

Female sexuality seems to bring with it a feeling of uneasiness—why else would its existence be so problematic and so detrimental to the women, like Beyoncé, who chose to take advantage of it? Yet, at the same time, American culture, like many others, finds ways to commercialize it.
It would seem then, that sexuality is only an issue when it’s being controlled by the woman herself.

But we can’t allow women to lose their sexuality, their identity—no matter how they choose to express it—for the sake of some kind of quasi-equality. In this day and age, it’s impossible for this to happen, but we must acknowledge this dangerous and antagonistic relationship we’ve set up between equality and sexuality, and seek to get rid of it—permanently.