Women's Bodies: Culture and Coercion
Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill to reinstate the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that lapsed in February 2019. Because of the consistent level of chaos in our government, I’m often desensitized to the truths behind the legislation. VAWA is one of those instances. It seems absurd that we accept that we need to have a law in place to protect one half of the population from the other half. Even more alarming is the fact that there are groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) that don’t want to see it passed as it may limit a dating partner’s access to firearms if they should be convicted of abuse or stalking. Why does our culture accept violence against women as commonplace and inevitable? It seems violence is so seductive to our country that we revere it above all else, including the safety of women in their own homes. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner violence in the United States. The figure is even higher for Native American women at 56 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, domestic violence is defined as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, as well as sexual coercion or stalking by a current or former intimate partner. Given this definition, and its inclusion of sexual coercion, I imagine the number of women that have been victims of domestic violence is quite a bit higher than the statistics indicate. From an early age, girls are conditioned to put the needs of others before their own. This is especially true with the opposite sex and can lead women to believe sexual coercion is acceptable even when it occurs with their intimate partner.
Here’s the definition of sexual coercion from the HHS Office on Women’s Health: Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. Coercion can make you think you owe sex to someone. It might be from someone who has power over you, like a teacher, landlord, or a boss. No person is ever required to have sex with someone else.
This definition is striking to me for several reasons, primarily because I believe it encompasses nearly every woman’s experience of sex at some point in her life. Women are taught that we are to meet men’s sexual needs, regardless of how we feel about the act. What woman hasn’t been pressured into a kiss, a touch, or a more intimate act against their will? How often do we say yes when we really want to say no? Women are often compelled by the need to please and make others comfortable at the expense of their own comfort. I know many women that were well into adulthood before they realized they had a say about when they had sex. I was well into adulthood before I realized I had agency over my own body. I recently re-watched the movie “Sixteen Candles,” which was one of my favorite movies as a teenager in the 80’s. I was horrified by the scene where the manly and popular Jake “gives” his girlfriend to the nerdy young man because he is “done with her,” as if she is a sexual object to be passed around. My teenage self bought into the laughs that this scene was meant to evoke never realizing it was working its way into my belief system about who owns and controls a girl’s body.
Popular culture tells women and girls that there is a sexual schedule that we need to adhere to be part of the dating world and to couple. Because of what I saw on TV and in movies, I believed sexual coercion was something that girls just had to put up with and ultimately, to give in to. This assumption of a lack of control over my own body can’t exist without also assuming men to be predominantly sexual beings never wanting more from a woman than her body. This belief is predicated on men being shallow, single-minded, and controlling. Both genders lose in this scenario because neither sex is recognized as full human beings with control over their actions.
I am committed to raising a daughter that has agency over her own body. For this to happen, I must confront my assumptions about the control I have over my own body. We need to call out the blatant disregard for women’s and girl’s bodies and feelings in popular culture and we need to be honest with our kids about the need for firm boundaries. I hope that by the time my child is an adult there won’t be a need for a Violence Against Woman Act. I’m going to do everything I can to make that a reality.