Three Ways Cultural Misogyny Affects You6 Min Read
It’s easy to take the things you see every day for granted, or accept them without a second thought. If you’re used to a certain culture, as well as its practices and influence, things that might give outsiders pause might not make you do the same double-take. But it’s important to evaluate your own culture — and ask yourself what kind of assumptions and implications need a serious revamp.
That includes cultural beliefs and stereotypes about sex and sexuality. Plenty of cultural stigmas can influence your thoughts, actions, and decisions when it comes to your sex life, and interrogating them can help you decide what ideas to accept and what to reject.
“What matters is that you choose it, instead of letting your beliefs about your body and sex be chosen for you by the accident of the culture and family you were born into,” says researcher and sex educator Emily Nagoski explains in her book “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.” “You empower yourself to have the sexual well-being that fits you, custom made.”
The reality is that much of the United States’ attitudes toward sex can be incredibly misogynistic, which likely comes as no surprise. Think about the “boys that will be boys” excuse that dismisses sexual violence, or the prevalence of objectification and harassment that women and girls experience regularly. Perhaps you were subjected to heteronormative lectures about promiscuity, and about how partners would never value you if you took pleasure in your own pleasure.
It’s important to break this down further: What misogynist messages permeate our culture most? And how can you identify and reject misogyny in your everyday life? Here are a few key categories, inspired from Emily Nagoski’s “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.”
The Moral Misogynistic Message
Imagine listening to a story about someone else’s sex life and not passing a single moral judgment about their decisions, whether that includes the number of people they’ve slept with in the past, how often they have sex, who they have sex with, what type of sex they prefer, the circumstances surrounding the sex… Difficult, right?
Making a judgment about someone else doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and you aren’t alone. Mainstream narratives constantly impose some kind of moral judgment about sex, particularly when it comes to female sexuality. Popular culture has long condemned the notion that women should be able to freely explore their sexual desires, or even have more than one partner. Those that do are typically perceived as being devalued, or “tainted,” and this long-enduring notion dates back to early Christian notions of virginal moral purity;.
As Nagoski puts it in “Come as You Are,” there is a “contradiction between the desirable and the lovable.” If our desires don’t match up with our morals, we worry we are broke, wrong, or worst of all.. unlovable. For example, women are taught from a young age that casual sex will turn them into “a chewed piece of gum" or “a petal-less flower”. This messaging gives no space for sexual curiosity and exploration, stopping us from discovering our sexual selves.
The Media’s Misogynistic Message
To be fair, we’ve come a long way when it comes to censoring sex in pop culture. In the mid-20th century, a detailed sex scene would have been shocking to the general public; now, we can reasonably expect one in most movies geared toward adults. This is by and large a good thing: Exposures to sex through media can provoke important conversations and provide a cursory education. But it’s also worth interrogating what exactly we’re hearing in songs and seeing on movie and television screens because the details shown in popular media are often misogynistic and misleading, if not outright wrong.
While there have been plenty of strides to get more women behind the camera and into producer roles, a lot of men still call the shots in Hollywood, both onset and in editing bays and business meetings. As a result, depictions of sex in porn, or in TV shows and movies, and even in some books tend to reflect the male experience. There might be an overemphasis on penetration and male ejaculation, whereas clitoral orgasm, female pleasure tends to be overlooked completely.
Remember: It takes women much longer to respond to pleasure than men, so sex scenes that last for 60 seconds, while probably the result of some clever editing, can create inaccurate expectations for viewers. But they’re not doing anything wrong — the media they watch is simply lying to them. Even so, women may feel that they are broken or medically disadvantaged after an unsuccessful sexual encounter, when really they are trying to meet an unrealistic expectation that does not take their biological needs into account.
The Misogynistic Message Behind Body-Shaming
Not only are women’s bodies subjected to policing related to their sexual habits and misinformation regarding normal bodily functions, but women are also judged by harsh rules that determine which types of bodies are “worthy” of sexual attention to begin with.
Though more women’s magazines purport to celebrate body positivity, they often still place images of airbrushed supermodels next to ads for clothes that only go up to a size 8 or 10. Celebrities and regular people routinely undergo plastic surgery to adjust which of the “right” curves they have, and shapewear is a multi-million dollar industry. As Nagoski explains it, no one wins. “[The message is that] you are inadequate - too fat, too thin”,” she writes in “Come as You Are.”
It is so important to realize that a lot of the messages women are fed about the worth of their bodies truly falls apart under the lightest scrutiny. When women — and men, given that they also regularly experience body image issues — are constantly bogged down with anxieties of what their bodies are supposed to look like, that fear directly impacts their sex lives (let us remember: the brain is a person’s biggest sex organ, and stress is the biggest sex-killer!)
Adding insult to injury, women are brainwashed from a young age to think they are “supposed” to look a certain way. By the time “a woman is 60, she will have viewed about 6 million of these messages telling her what a woman's appearance should be,” romance gurus and researchers John and Julie Gottman explain in their book “The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the Love Lab About What Women Really Want.” But these ideals are just social constructs that were initially born out of the evolutionary desire to copulate with the most “fit” partner, and have since been twisted into something that is functionally impossible to achieve.
In the Victorian Era, the ideal female body was the image of fertility: voluptuous, and curvaceous (3). In some communities in Africa, a practice called galvaging — which is essentially gaining as much weight as possible to demonstrate access to resources — is central to finding a husband. And in high-income countries, the Gottmans explain that “thinness denotes self-control, or an ethereal abstinence that appears saintly.” All this goes to show that “body ideals” are extremely context-dependent and largely outdated.
At the end of the day, trying to meet beauty standards is like shooting at a moving target: they are constantly shifting. Even if they weren’t, many of these standards are completely unrealistic, and require either a lot of money or dangerous habits (like maintaining a severe caloric deficit) to be realized.
Flipping the Script
So how do you fight cultural misogyny, especially if it’s everywhere? Changing the way society collectively understands sex, and rewiring culturally-accepted truths can take a lot of time, and even generations to achieve. Furthermore, it can feel like an uphill battle to call it out every time you see it, but staying wary of these insidious messages and how they affect you is a great way to start.