5 Ways Our Society Unfairly Punishes Women For Their Sexuality

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi

A protester at a "SlutWalk" protest in New Delhi, India

In the United States, women’s bodies are constantly sexualized and objectified. Ironically, however, the women in control of those bodies are expected to refrain from actually using them to express any kind of sexuality. That’s largely because “purity culture” — essentially, the assumption that women need to remain chaste, and present an image of modesty to the outside world — is deeply ingrained in American society. The worldview is instilled in many American kids beginning at a young age through abstinence-only education, and constantly reinforced as women move through the adult world, too.

This approach to female sexuality has far-reaching consequences. Indeed, even though proponents of abstinence until marriage claim it’s a directive that applies equally to both genders, purity culture has an outsized impact on women. Here are five examples of that unfair dynamic:

1. Women are more likely to get fired for having sex outside of marriage.

Employees at private religious institutions often have to sign some sort of sexual morality agreement that requires them to abstain from sex outside of marriage. But it’s much easier to catch women violating that rule, since unmarried female employees who become pregnant have visible markers of their sexual activity. On Monday, Mother Jones published a round-up of the most recent cases of pregnant women getting fired for this reason — including several cases in which women were let go even though they were engaged to be married to the fathers of their unborn children.

2. Young women are blamed for our teen pregnancy rate.

Rather than addressing the root issues of unintended pregnancy, like combating poverty and ensuring greater access to sexual health resources, our country’s efforts in this area typically focus on blaming individual young women for making bad choices. Teens who become pregnant are often held up as symbols of young adults who have failed. High schools that are committed to emphasizing abstinence sometimes bar pregnant girls from going to prom or appearing in the yearbook. And messages about making smart sexual choices are often specifically targeted to girls, ignoring boys’ equal role in practicing safe sex.

3. Girls and women are responsible for avoiding men’s gaze by covering up their bodies.

Starting from a very young age, girls constantly receive messages about their responsibility to cover up their bodies, particularly when they might end up “distracting the boys” with their revealing clothing. School dress codes typically define inappropriate clothing in a way that specifically targets girls’ hemlines and necklines, without putting equal burden on young men. That attitude forces women to work at preventing themselves from being ogled, rather than teaching men to avoid ogling in the first place. This dynamic persists into adulthood, too, as women are simultaneously encouraged to present themselves as objects of men’s desire and condemned when they look too “slutty.” Some women have actually lost their jobs because their bosses decided that being around them was too big of a “temptation.”

4. Women’s access to basic health care services is consistently called into question.

Thanks to women’s reproductive systems, they require more specialized health services than men do. They need preventative services like birth control to avoid pregnancy, cancer prevention tools like Pap smears and HPV shots, and maternity care when they choose to start a family. That’s why, before Obamacare was in place, women were often forced to spend much more on their health needs. But even now that the reform law has taken effect, conservatives continue to attack women’s health care based on the idea that it’s unnecessary to fund their decision to be promiscuous. All of the efforts to roll back access to birth control and abortion services have a simple ethos in common: the idea that the government shouldn’t “subsidize” women’s sex lives because women shouldn’t be sexually active in the first place.

5. Once women give their consent, they’re not allowed to withdraw it.

Our societal assumptions about women’s purity and chastity are directly related to rape culture. Why? Because purity culture rests upon a worldview that once a women has sex outside of marriage, she’s dirty. In that context, only virginal women can be raped — and any kind of other women who claims her consent was violated can’t be trusted, because she was probably using her sexuality in a way that was “asking for it.” Maybe her skirt was too short, or she was flirting too much, or she initiated a casual hookup. Her earlier decision to exercise her sexuality erases her credibility and her consent. The consequences of this particular approach to women’s sexuality are evident every time a rape victim attempts to come forward and is met with blame and harassment instead of support and trust.