Close your eyes. Think of a promiscuous man you know reasonably well. Pause. Now clear your mind, and think of a woman who has many sexual partners. I’d bet my Deluxe Rampant Rabbit that the mind’s image of the male made the corners of your mouth turn up ever so slightly, your pupils possibly dilate a touch (even though your eyes were closed), and your heart rate slow minutely.
The thought of the woman however, likely will have had the opposite effect: your mouth will have tensed up, your pupils will have contracted, and your heart rate will have risen a little. These subconscious reactions to amusement and indignation respectively cannot be cheated by the body. You can try to kid your conscious mind that you don’t hold this sexist view; however your subconscious is literally incapable of lying.
Your sexism is not entirely your fault; it comes from an unconscious bias of judgements, some of which are not even balanced or logical but merely an instinctive feeling from situations experienced and possibly genetics. This could be from our socialisation, how/where/when we’ve been brought up, even our exposure to our peers, media and social groups. This deep-rooted ideology does not necessarily come from a place of malice; oftentimes we have no control over these subconscious stereotypes that have been forged inside our mind throughout years of misogynistic rule. (Bear with me; this series of papers is as far-from man-hating as you can get.)
Historically, men have always had the most power in society, and therefore have always made the rules most favourable to themselves. The nineteenth-century philosopher Karl Marx discovered what he termed ‘Conflict Theory’, in which he stated that the social order is controlled by domination and power, rather than by compliance and harmony.
According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to keep it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless – which historically tended to be women (Collins & Sanderson, 2016). A basic understanding of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to try to maximise their own wealth and power. So, for example, whilst laws were introduced in England over a thousand years ago that enabled men to take concubines in addition to wives with laws governing such relationships, the same privileges were not bestowed upon women. Men were permitted to divorce women if they committed adultery, and women faced very harsh penalties for doing so, including death if caught in the act by husbands.
Every social ‘norm’ only appears that way because we have been programmed from birth to accept it as such. The rulers of society over the years have made life most comfortable and pleasurable for themselves, whilst trying to uphold and normalise the status quo. If women had been the dominant sex in power throughout history, and had so wished to have multiple partners, then the idea of a man taking many women for pleasure would be akin to a solid ten-incher: a difficult concept for us to swallow.
Unfortunately, as well as the ingrained sexism in our psyche, our primary mode of expression is also loaded with a gender bias: a male-dominated lexicon that we all reinforce daily from birth. The wave of feminism that began in the 1960s and 70s drew attention to this gender bias in language, including ‘the uncovering of the gendered nature of many linguistic rules and norms’ (Pauwels, 2003).
As an example, certain groups have advocated for the change from male nouns such as chairman and spokesman to gender non-specific nouns such as chairperson and spokesperson. Contemporary examples of changes to language even go beyond male/female to accommodate non-binary, with the introduction of ‘they/them’ as a singular pronoun. Yet such changes are merely a drop in the ocean; a collection of letters that we simply term ‘words’ do not innocently and accurately delineate the things they claim to represent. Words come loaded with assumptions, biases and an etymology that often denotes their sexism.
Consider how all this relates to the ‘players’ and ‘sluts’ of the world. See the association of the word ‘player’ – proactive, sporty, physically fit – compared to the etymology and negativity associated with ‘slut’: originally used circa 1450 in the late Middle English language to describe a woman as dirty, a prostitute, harlot, or immoral woman. There are plenty of words to describe female promiscuity: slut, slag, whore, prostitute (a very different woman from one who simply enjoys sex for free).
Negative terms for sexually promiscuous males are rare though; how many can you think of? ‘Player’ isn’t exactly derogatory; ‘stud’ again conjures images of an athletic, fertile animal, aptly with a huge cock (compensating, much?) The only other terms that I can think of rely on their dirty female counterpart to give them definition – man-whore, womaniser – and these descriptive words of men do not invoke feelings of negativity.
We as humans are conditioned from beginning to end, from our prejudiced thought processes through to their translation into the heavily loaded words that we spew. It’s like being permanently sat in a room with farts being pumped through the AC and told not to think of shit.
So it’s no wonder that we think differently towards a promiscuous woman than we do a promiscuous man. By challenging our thinking however, we can challenge our reactions towards those thoughts. Next week we will look more specifically at my experiences growing up in British society at the end of the last century, and how my beliefs and upbringing helped shape the views that I have today regarding female sexuality.
Natalia is a published author with a Master of Research in Literature, Culture & Philosophy, and currently runs a multi-million pound construction company. Her latest collection of books is the erotic, non-fiction trilogy, The Vagina Travelogues.
You can connect with her here.
- Collins, Randall & Sanderson, Stephen K. Conflict Sociology: A Sociological Classic. Routledge (2016).
- De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Columbia University Press (2011).
- Marx, Karl. Das Kapital. Wordsworth (2013).
- Menegatti, Michala & Rubini, Monica. “Gender Bias and Sexism in Language.” https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.470
- Pauwels, Anne. "Linguistic Sexism and Feminist Linguistic Activism". The Handbook of Language and Gender. Ed. Janet Holmes & Miriam Meyerhoff. Blackwell (2003). 550-570.