In Ancient Greece, it was believed that women could defeat evil forces and scare away attacking troops by exposing their genitals to them. In many ancient societies, women were viewed as powerful, creator beings, worthy of respect. Over time, this warped into a negative perspective of the power of women’s sexuality - a thing to be controlled and dominated by men. But I like the image of a tribe of women facing a troop of soldiers head on and lifting their robes in defiance, safe in the knowledge that they, and their vaginas were super weapons.
Perhaps it’s what our ancestors might have done when faced with the 9 US Supreme Court judges who made the decision to roll back Roe vs Wade last week.
Women all over the world are still reeling from this move to take away women’s constitutional rights to abortion. With many states now banning abortion outright, this paves the way for unchecked (and indeed, legally sanctioned) misogynistic laws, restrictions, attitudes and no doubt, behaviour towards women.
People keep quoting and referring to Margaret Atwood’s seminal work The Handmaids Tale. #MeToo and the arrests of Weinstein and Epstein seem like a million years ago. The backlash against feminism is now well underway. It’s been coming for a while, creeping alongside Brexit, Trump, and the rise of the Far Right. The popularity of once fringe opinions and figures spouting ‘whataboutery’ whenever women’s rights, or black lives matter, or LGBT rights are mentioned. Meanwhile the Taliban have reduced women in their country to little more than hidden slaves, and most recently, Zara Aleena marks the 16th woman to be murdered by a man in London this year.
So what’s this all about? Because make no mistake, everything, and all of these things are linked. To my mind, all of this stuff stems from the most powerful, and perhaps oldest emotion of all. FEAR: Fear of women, fear of women’s sexuality.
They say FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing as Real, and as such, our fears hold us back. Yes they do. They hold us all back. With devastating consequences for those that are the object of that fear.
Historically, Patriarchy systematically normalised this fear into the institutions of organised religion. Women have been suppressed ever since. The efforts to control women and their untamed, dangerous sexualities is clear to see in the Holy Books themselves; in the institution of marriage; and the many systems we have inherited ever since. Women were punished for their inherently ‘sinful’ natures - witness the witch hunts of times past as an overt example of this.
But in the West, in the present day, these witch hunts still go on, these underlying sentiments are still there; but find their expression in more subtle, hidden ways. They emerge when women are in the public eye. They emerge in rape and murder trials. They emerge when women dare to speak out.
Witness the tragic case of Grace Millane. British backpacker Grace was murdered by a tinder date in New Zealand in 2018, and was all but blamed for her own murder by the trial’s defence, who brought out a host of ex-boyfriends testifying as to her sexual preferences for BDSM practises. “Rough sex gone wrong” was the defence’s argument for what happened to Grace, though fortunately the Jury saw sense. But it's scary how many times this argument was used to exonerate men from murdering women. In 45% of cases where it was used, the perpetrator received a lesser sentence.*
This year, it was finally banned as a defence against murder in the UK.
Sexual assault victims have often historically been slut-shamed for what they wore, how drunk they were, or what they were doing at the time of the rape. There is always a subtle subtext of "But…did you bring this on yourself?” Rape, thanks to TV and movie sensationalising, is somehow only imagined as happening under terrifying, brutal, violent circumstances with a stranger that leaps up behind you. The boyfriend or husband or charming date that rapes; and who the victim not only knows but has consented to sex with many times; is far more common, and much more nuanced. Ultimately, women know how they’re going to be questioned and subsequently judged, because they don't necessarily fit the bloodied, bruised, or let's face it - “dead” perfect victim stereotype, so they often don't a) report or b) prosecute.
This is nothing new. In the 18th century, rape was notoriously difficult to prove or bring to conviction. The deeply embedded misogyny of the times meant that accusations of rape were only taken seriously if the woman was ‘of good character’ (meaning: virginal, pure) and had suffered some sort of clear physical damage. Indeed, a woman who was not a virgin or worse, a ‘wanton woman’ could not possibly be raped. Furthermore, the archaic views of the time held that conception would only happen if intercourse was consensual - so if the victim was pregnant as a result of rape - she was lying, clearly.
Rape victims, if they were taken seriously enough to get to the ‘examination’ stage, were always examined by a male physician, and if their genitals were deemed by him to be too floppy or ‘loose’ - then clearly they had ‘already been debauched’ and were dismissed as women of bad character and by default, liars. Women who were found to be ‘lying’ about rape were often imprisoned or flogged themselves!
At the root of this was the notion in 18th century society that women existed to serve men. A woman’s body, - and a woman’s sexuality for that matter- was not her own. It was her husband’s, or, if she was a sex worker or perhaps of lower social class - any man’s for the taking.
Fast forward 300 or so years to 2019. A 19 year old British holidaymaker accuses 12 Israeli men of gang raping her in Cyprus. After being mercilessly interrogated by police for 8 hours, she drops the case, and is not only charged but imprisoned for 4 months for public mischief (she was later found innocent and acquitted). This despite having DNA and video evidence of the rape. A time travelling woman from 1750 looking at this case would no doubt find it very familiar indeed.
The notion of the ‘perfect victim’ and that women ‘ask for it’ is all too clear in the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial. This one was particularly divisive because Heard had defended herself, Heard had sometimes instigated the insults, the abuse. Heard took drugs with Depp. Heard very probably had a personality disorder and deep trauma that made her a problematic and difficult person. But NONE of these flaws in her character or behaviour justified the horrendous public vilification, humiliation and utter destruction of her name that she received as a result. Her name and reputation was dragged through the mud and battered by men and women alike. And while Depp had also been criticised - once he won the case, - it was Heard who was the “liar”. It was Heard who received the sickening misogynistic abuse and death threats. Not Depp.
Back to Roe vs Wade. What saddened me most about this whole debacle was hearing so many pro-choice campaigners referring to cases of rape and incest to condemn the Supreme Court's ruling. Because in using only the extreme cases of violence and abuse to promote abortion; there is the underlying implication that women do not have the right to simply ‘choose’ to have an abortion if they so wish. That it is only in cases of forced intercourse and forced pregnancy that women should be able to choose what happens to their bodies afterwards. Underpinning this is the further implication that women shouldn’t have the right to have sex for pleasure, and only pleasure. When women have sex, it should be for procreation. Very Handmaids Tale.
The backlash against feminism, against female empowerment and #MeToo is getting louder, but maybe that’s because women’s movements are getting louder, too. Everywhere I look, organisations, networks and communities are springing up to empower women. To help women recognise their own worth, and to fight against societies historically geared towards men.
Women are rising up, and standing in their power now, more than ever. More and more women are embracing their sexuality, more and more women are choosing not to base their entire lives around being with or serving men. Women are choosing, honouring and most importantly, healing themselves. It’s so refreshing to see. Maybe we will return to a time when women are revered and respected for the creator beings that they are.
And for the patriarchal systems in place- that is truly terrifying.
All these themes are discussed in more detail on Herstorical Tours walks. Booking now.
© Maria Beadell 2022