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Women’s Right to Say YES to Sexuality

Respecting and enhancing female sexual performance

“Some people think having large breasts makes a woman stupid. Actually, it's quite the opposite: a woman having large breasts makes men stupid." Rita Rudner


It is commonly agreed that in matters of sexual activities, women have the right to say “no.” Women’s right to say “yes” is treated with greater ambivalence. Current social norms accept that women have the right to a weak “yes” in reference to initiating sexual relationships, and indeed women often do so. However, women still lack the stronger sense of “yes” when it comes to their right to freely enhance and shape their sexual performances, in whatever frequency or intensity they desire, and for any non-immoral purposes, without enduring any social or emotional condemnation.

Some of the issues that impede a strong sense of “yes” in response to women's sexuality concern society's estimation of, for example, the extent of women's sexuality, the reward they can or should get for their sexuality, and their leeway in choosing their sexual partner. Whatever the views on these issues are, it is obvious that men’s right to say “yes” is much stronger and granted more dignity. A major impediment to women’s ability to say a strong “yes” is the humiliation they might experience if they were to express their sexuality in the way they want.

The erotic capital of female sexuality

In their insightful articles on sexuality, gender, and the law, Shulamit Almog and Karin-Carmit Yefet (2015, 2016) urge us to normalize female sexuality and free it from the chains of humiliation and shame. In line with the theory of sexual economy, they describe heterosexual sexual activity as occurring in a market in which sex constitutes a resource and where female sexuality is of significantly greater value than male sexuality. According to such a view, it would be plausible to assume that women could convert their ownership of the sexual resource into other forms of symbolic capital and into economic and social power. Yet this is not the case in practice. They further claim that modern society, which has yet to overcome the supremacy of patriarchy, has in fact developed complex cultural and legal strategies to prevent women from using their sexual resources to promote their flourishing.

Almog and Yefet argue that underlying this prevailing tradition is a "humiliation scale"—the greatest humiliation is directed at prostitutes and the least humiliation is directed at married women who behave as “decent” woman should behave. This scale constitutes a tool for the modern policing of female sexuality; it is structured around an ascription of the social price of shame to be levied for any female sexual activity that exceeds certain pre-determined gender boundaries. Almog and Yefet emphasize the need to facilitate the transformation of female sexuality from a site of danger, humiliation, and weakness to a source of self-actualization and empowerment. They contend that women should be allowed to enjoy sex freely without incurring the fine of shame and humiliation.

Almog and Yefet identify sex as a valuable female resource in a marketplace in which men offer women non-sexual benefits in return for sex. Yet while women control the central resource in the sexual marketplace, their erotic capital has not translated into political and economic power. Instead, our society, including its legal system, imposes on women various prices in the form of social humiliation for exercising their sexuality. This policing mechanism, however veiled, prevents women from leveraging their sexual resource into other forms of economic or social power, thus preserving a patriarchal social order well into the modern age.

This attitude precludes women from saying a strong, dignified “yes” to sexuality. This is manifested in various issues, two of which I briefly discuss here: (1) the extent of female sexuality, and (2) the reward women get for their sexuality.

The extent of female sexuality

The extent of female sexuality refers to the amount of women’s sexual activities. The prevailing cultural attitude toward the extent of female sexuality has always been ambivalent. Thus, the prevailing Madonna-Whore distinction expresses men’s ambivalent wish to see their female partner as both a pure gracious lady and a wild cheap slut. While many men would be happy to have sex with a sexually experienced woman, most of them would be uncomfortable if their wife had such experience. Similarly, in order to be considered a “nice girl,” women are more likely to understate the number of people they have slept with, whereas men typically boast and exaggerate their sexual history. Indeed, embedded in our culture and language are opposing attitudes to women and men who have had sexual relationships with many people. Thus, while the term “slut” is defined as “an insulting word for a woman whose sexual behavior is considered immoral,” the corresponding male term “stud” is defined as “a man who is admired for being sexually attractive and good at sex” (Macmillan Dictionary).

Another concern that involves the social norms governing the extent of "permitted" sexuality refers to whether the agent, or the agent’s partner, is married. The prevailing attitude downplays men’s involvement (because “after all, he is a man”), while criticizing similar behavior from women (since “women take sex more seriously”). This attitude actually denies women’s ability to enjoy sex purely for its own sake—because women are assumed to take sex more seriously and expected to engage in it only with the love of their life.

Although there can be some differences between male and female sexuality, it seems that these differences (or at least most of them) are not relevant to the gender difference concerning the extent of sexuality. In this day and age, it is hypocritical to subject women who are sexually very active to humiliation, while similarly active men are admired for the same practice.

The reward women get for their sexuality

The prevailing attitude toward rewarding women for their sexual activities is again ambivalent. Hence, women who sell their sexuality for money are regarded as whores, while women who give their sexuality for free are sluts. It should be noted that rewarding someone for praiseworthy activities is in itself not negative; its value typically depends on the given circumstances. Thus, these days the work of most people involves selling their services for money. It may be argued that sexual services are different from other services we sell because the former involve selling not merely one's body, but also the most intimate part of one's soul. In many circumstances, constantly selling one's body can indeed be problematic, as in many circumstances of commercial prostitution. This, however, does not abolish the value of rewarding us for our sexual activities. The reward need not be in materials goods, but can also be expressed in the partner’s positive attitude or in improving the overall atmosphere in the relationship. Moreover, we typically praise sexual generosity, i.e., cases in which one engages in sexual interactions with one’s partner, even though one does not really want the interaction and is unlikely to enjoy it (see here). In this case, sexual services are not merely given for free, but also involve paying for this undesired activity by investing resources such as time and effort.

It seems then that the issue of being rewarded for sexual services or giving them for free should not be used to criticize women's sexuality more than we condemn, if we do, similar male activities.

Female sexuality and shame

The humiliation scale that Almog and Yefet propose classifies women within a hierarchy of shameful activities according to the nature, extent, and consequences of their sexual practices. In this regard, we can discern three related proposals: (a) eliminating female sexual shame all together, (b) reducing the extent of female sexual shame, and (c) equalizing the extent and nature of female sexual shame with that of males. While I believe we should oppose the first proposal, we ought to accept (along with Almog and Yefet) the other two.

I oppose eliminating women’s shame since shame is a central emotion generated when we violate some of our essential values. Eliminating shame would certainly impact negatively on our values. Indeed, when referring to people with no values, we often describe them as lacking the ability to be ashamed. Sexual activities, as most human activities, are often not value neutral; when we violate these values, we should be ashamed of it. Thus, incest, which is sexual activity between people who are closely related, such as a parent and a child, should be considered as violating moral values (especially when it involves a minor child), and hence it would be proper for a parent to feel ashamed after initiating such an activity.

This does not mean that we should not try to reduce the current extent of female sexual shame and to equalize it to that of men when relevant circumstances are similar. Determining the nature of relevant circumstances is associated with the status given to gender differences in sexuality.

Can gender differences justify double standards?

“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” Simone de Beauvoir

Justifying differences in attitudes toward male and female sexuality can be based on actual biological gender differences that are beyond our control. However, research indicates that such differences are narrowing and in any case are much smaller than common knowledge would suggest.

After reviewing many studies concerning gender differences in sexuality, Jennifer Peterson and Janet Hyde (2011) suggest that the majority of such differences are small and that within-gender variation is larger than between-gender variation in sexual behaviors and attitudes. They warn that exaggerating gender differences can lead to distorted attitudes, since conforming to strict gender roles limits one's sexual expression. For example, women who have strong libidos might be derogated for having multiple sex partners or engaging in casual sex. In contrast, men who have low sexual drives do not fit the cultural stereotype and might be viewed as less masculine. Peterson and Hyde further argue that women who are sexually inhibited can feel guilt or shame for having sex, and this emotional suppression is likely to lead to sexual disorders, including reduced sexual desire. They conclude that recognizing gender similarities in sexuality where they exist is essential for challenging the prevailing double standards toward female sexuality and for achieving equality of sexual expression.

A strong, dignified, female “yes”

The need to change distorted attitudes about female sexuality, in both our moral and legal norms, is patent. While it is generally accepted that women have the right to say “no” and often also the right to say a weak “yes,” this typically only refers to implicit actions taken when initiating the relationship. This should be augmented by the recognition of women's right to freely generate, enhance, and shape the nature of their sexual performances in any frequency or intensity they desire, and for any non-immoral purposes, without incurring social or emotional penalties.