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Making The Oppressed Do The Work

I had one of those interesting intersections of two wildly different parts of life today. I've been reading St. Augustine's City of God, which is at times entertaining in its willingness to make arguments that hardly anyone in America today would put into words*. Today I read a section where he discusses his wish to eliminate sexual desire. He describes lust as an uncontrollable force, demolishing the will of any man caught in its grip.

Then I read Frankie's post drawing together an incident in her childhood in which she was molested during a touch football game, and some recent comments by male friends who thought her new photos were too sexy:

I know this post is all over the place and makes very little sense, but the reactions to my pictures got me thinking about stuff, even that fateful football game in my youth. I was a strong, smart, young girl who rivaled these boys intellectually and athletically on a daily basis. I dished out the shit as much as the next guy on the team. So, why was I attacked? Was I a threat? Was it merely curiousity? Did I cross some invisible line that girls with big breasts are not supposed to cross?

Really, the reactions to my pictures were not even in the same ballpark as what happened to me back then. But, talking to a few of my guy friends, they appeared to be uneasy with me being sexy. It just got me wondering about things. Is it hard to view someone you consider your intellectual counterpart as sexy? If you love and respect a woman platonically, and one day she suddenly inspires some wood, do you freak? Is it weird? Threatening?

I think St. Augustine's unusually vocal struggle with his sexuality sheds some light on what was happening in the incidents Frankie describes.

At root, an oppressive system like sexism is about control. But it's not Big Brother type control enacted by the oppressor. Rather, social oppression operates by shifting the burden of maintaining control onto the oppressed. The oppressor is relieved of the burden of control, so much so that this freedom comes to feel natural and universal -- hence the protests of unfairness when members of oppressor groups are asked to recognize their position and shoulder some of that burden. (The ideal of the autonomous, rational, self-made man can serve as an ideological cloak, falsely asserting that the oppressor's advantage is deserved because he has done the work of maintaining control of himself.)

The uncontrollability of lust is a favorite mechanism for this responsibility-shifting in the case of sexism. Taught to believe in their own autonomy, men experience their sexuality as an alien force yanking them this way and that. The proper response to this would be to face up to one's sexuality and take responsibility, if not for the urges, at least for the actions that spring from them. But sexism holds out the seduction of irresponsibility, telling men they don't have to deal with their own feelings and actions. It's someone else's fault. It's the woman's fault (or the fault of the gay man, who not coincidentally is seen as a pseudo-woman) for arousing the lust. And therefore it's the woman's responsibility to manage her effects on men.

Frankie's breasts became an excuse for that group of boys both to indulge their lust by groping her, and to blame her for the incident by labeling her a slut. A woman becomes a "slut" whenever a man feels like he isn't in complete control.

Having never learned to control their own sexuality, men are constantly vulnerable to sexy women -- leading to a pervasive anxiety that manifests itself, for example, in fears of women seducing men for their money. Few men in America today would advocate going the St. Augustine route of resolving the problem by eliminating lust -- lust is simply too much fun, and to give up on indulging in it when and how one wants would be to give up one of the key benefits of being in the oppressor class. So a different strategy is needed: sexiness can be handled as long as the woman takes responsibility for controlling it and managing it in the interests of men.

Thus we get the bimbo ideal. The only kind of woman who can be trusted to be sexy, whose sexiness is not compromised by male anxiety, is the one considered too stupid to have desires beyond pleasing men. (It's a notable feature of the self-centeredness of a system of oppression that men assume that any woman they encounter is using her sexuality either for or against him.) So a woman who is confident, funny, and smart (and I assure you, Frankie is all three) cannot be trusted with sexiness. She can't be relied on to protect men from their own desires. Hence the effort to discipline such women, to force them to put one of those things -- their personality or their sexiness -- in a box and hide it. Frankie gives a powerful account of how she has long made the latter choice, but is tempted by the former.

I should be clear that the social processes I'm describing go on in many cases under the radar of our conscious thought. This is one reason why reading things written long ago, such as St. Augustine's works, can be revealing -- such authors may articulate things that have become unrecognized common sense in our time. This does not mean that the men who act in ways that perpetuate the sexist system are innocent -- rather, it places the burden on us to think hard about what we do, why we do it, and what its consequences are. It's all too easy -- indeed, it's a maintenance mechanism of sexism -- to let "common sense" stop our thoughts and on that basis protest our innocence and lack of responsibility.

* My favorite is when he says that rape is a punishment for sin -- albeit sometimes for a sin you haven't committed yet.


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