In a seminal 1980 philosophy paper, ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, Iris Marion Young cites Erwin Straus’ description of differences in styles of throwing between five year old girls and boys. While a girl makes no use of lateral space and remains relatively immobile apart from her arms, a boy will stretch his body sideways and backwards, twist, turn and bend his trunk, move his foot backwards, and throw the ball with force. The result, of course, is that the girl’s ball is released without force, speed, or accurate aim; the boy’s ‘leaves the hand with considerable acceleration; it moves toward its goal in a long, flat curve’ (Straus, 1966, 160).
This difference, argues Straus, has a biological rather than a social or acquired explanation, though he is at some loss to explain what the biological explanation is. Since the difference is found in very young children, it can’t be explained by the existence of female breasts – and anyway, it ‘seems certain’ that the Amazons, who cut off their breasts, ‘threw a ball just like our Mary’s, Betty’s and Susan’s’ (Straus, 1966, 158). Nor can it be explained by weaker muscle power, since a girl could compensate for this precisely by reaching forward and back. Instead, Straus argues, it is probably explicable by appeal to a ‘feminine attitude’ to the world and space. The difference for Straus, then, is biological, and yet this is in a rather vague way, since it is not in any way anatomical: it is simply part of a natural and eternal feminine essence.
Young is not in favour of Straus’ explanation, but she does agree with him about differences in throwing styles. In fact, Young extends the ways in which males and females differ with respect to whether or not they make full use of the body’s spatial and lateral possibilities. Women tend to be less open in their gait and stride; we are more likely to sit with our legs together and to fold our arms. Men are more likely to stand with their feet apart and to swing their arms. Women are also less likely to see ourselves as capable of lifting or carrying heavy things, and when we engage in sport: ‘a space surrounds us in imagination that we are not able to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a conflicted space […] We frequently respond to the motion of a ball coming toward us as though it were coming at us, and our immediate bodily impulse is to flee, duck, or otherwise protect ourselves from its flight’ (Young, 1980, 33- 34).Women often engage with sports timidly, hesitantly, perhaps apologetically. We lack confidence in our capacity to do certain things, and we fear getting hurt; rather than being a medium for the enactment of our aims, we often see our bodies instead as a fragile encumbrance (Young, 1980, 34). And our lack of confidence is, of course, often self-fulfilling.
The reason for this difference, Young posits, lies in the fact that bodily attitudes – everyone’s bodily attitudes – reflect their sense of the possibilities afforded us by the world. Understanding this claim takes us back to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that subjective experience starts from the perspective of our bodies. So, a door is perceived instantly as a door, and not as a compilation of wood and metal, because I perceive it in an embodied fashion: I see it as something it’s possible to walk through, close, reopen, slam. Or, again, the reason I perceive a cup as a cup, despite only being able to see one side of it at any time, lies in the fact that in seeing it I have already interpreted and experienced it as an object it is possible to pick up, hold, drink from (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Our perception and experience of the cup is unitary; we do not sense the cup and the possibilities it gives us as separate things, but as a whole, because our bodies are the lens through which we see it (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 150; Husserl, 2001, 42). So, our bodies are the starting point for our perception of the world, and, conversely, the possibilities opened up by the world depend on the mode and limits of the body’s possibilities (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 137, 148). A sense that we cannot swing our arms or move beyond a confined space is not just about how we view our bodies, but about how we perceive the world and how we are able to live in it and relate to it.
Possibilities are pretty important to humans. The sense that we have possibilities is necessary for our ability to pursue them, and to our engagement, immersion in, and sense of belonging to the world. Possibilities give rise to more possibilities, and so when we inhabit a world of possibilities there is a dynamic interplay of habitual expectation and fulfilment, of confident anticipation (Ratcliffe, 2015, 47). A common source – and indeed form – of suffering is a loss of agency and sense of the possibilities we have available to us. Thus the experience of depression, for instance, is very frequently described in terms of a loss of a sense of possibilities, and so, by extension, a loss of agency or ability to act (Ratcliffe, 2013). For example, as one person says of their experience of depression: ‘It became impossible to reach anything. Like, how do I get up and walk to that chair if the essential thing we mean by chair, something that lets us sit down and rest or upholds us as we read a book […] has lost the quality of being able to do that?’ (Anon, quoted Hornstein, 2009, 213; see Ratcliffe, 2013).
All human experience of possibility is malleable, being shaped by the social and cultural contexts in which we are embedded, and reflected in our bodily behaviour. While not about depression, Young’s paper draws attention to the fact that women’s bodies often behave differently to men’s, precisely because of the diminishment of our possibilities – because women are ‘physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified’ by patriarchal culture. Girls are less likely to be encouraged to develop particular bodily skills, and more likely to be told not to get dirty, or hurt, or ruin their clothes. Girls are taught, even today, the subtle habits of feminine comportment: to walk, sit, and stand in a feminine way – whatever that may be in Young’s and our respective cultures. Young’s reflections are valuable precisely because they draw attention not to the horrific and extreme things we already know about (for example, one-off instances of rape or other sexual violence), but to micro, systemic, everyday things that start early in our lives, and to the way these relate specifically to the loss of possibilities open to us and so the narrowing of our worlds. As Young herself invites us to do, this way of understanding these experiences can be extended to other aspects of women’s embodied subjectivity, not only in relation to sports and everyday comportment, but also in relation to other aspects of women’s experience, including sex and sexuality.
How are women’s experiences of sex and sexuality today shaped by the diminished sense of possibility Young highlights? Or, what light does Young’s account of women’s experience, which foregrounds possibility and its loss, shed on women’s experiences of sex and sexuality now? Here are a few thoughts, drawn from my own experience. Many of these are, I think, experiences common to the vast majority of women like me, who are in many ways the lucky ones: women who live in a modern, outwardly egalitarian society who are surrounded by liberal, feminist friends and colleagues. In writing of these experiences, I seek to disrupt the hegemonic narrative that we already live in an egalitarian society, or that sexual violence does not, in fact, affect the experience of most women day-to-day, or that it does not do so at a significant level.
A major enjoyment in my life is walking. I enjoy walking with friends, but also, and in some ways particularly, on my own. If I’m stressed it often takes me out of myself and helps me to see that things matter less than I think; if I’m thinking about my research it often helps me to be creative and reorder my ideas. Yet my experience of walking has at times been marred, not only by assaults during walks (though this has happened, and in unlikely times and places), but also by advice from well-meaning people from an early age to be careful: to watch out because it’s likely that if I walk alone then I will be raped. Most recently, this happened about six months ago as I walked in some woods near my home in Yorkshire. Meeting a family from a nearby city who had come for a picnic for the day, we spent five minutes passing the time of day by talking about the beautiful weather and countryside. But the walk as a whole was tarnished for me by the man’s concern that I was walking alone, and question about whether I wasn’t worried about being attacked.
The effect of this kind of well-intentioned question was to alter my mood, my background sense of how I found myself in the world and the particular quality of experience of being immersed in it. Unlike an emotion, a mood like this is not an intentional state that is directed towards a particular object (for example, a sense of fear about the possibility of being raped). Rather, it is an immersion in the world as a threatening and fearful place, a place in which we do not belong and that is not of our own making (see Ratcliffe, 2015). The world of the person whose mood is one of fear is simply not the same world as the world of the person whose mood is characterised by a sense of one’s possibilities. Threat is not only a contingent prospect about a particular event but, rather, the shape that all experience of the world has, one that makes the beautiful weather seem discordant, and the woods not peaceful and joyful but strange and threatening. And this is a sense that is, to different extents, instilled in girls from an early age, and of which (even if we consciously choose to reject it, as I had done) we are forcibly reminded at various points throughout our lives.
Over the last six months I’ve done quite a lot of (mostly heterosexual) dating: a relatively new experience to me since, prior to that, I have mostly been in monogamous relationships. For the most part, the experience of dating has been an exciting one, carrying with it a sense of possibility and confident anticipation: meeting new and interesting people, being less sexually constrained, becoming more confident. Being single and not celibate has not only been fun, but has also allowed me to consider whether and in what ways monogamous relationships are (inherently or contingently) patriarchal or heteronormative, to re-assess earlier relationships, and to consider a wider range of possible futures than I’d previously allowed myself. Yet, on the contemporary dating scene, too – at least as far as it relates to people between their late-twenties and late-forties – there are curiosities that point to a diminished sense of possibilities of the world for women in particular. So, for example, as it turns out, it’s still overwhelmingly the norm for men to make the first move on a date. This is in spite of the fact that both the man and the woman may be ardent feminists: it seems there is still an invisible barrier that prevents women from taking this step. I, for one, am guilty of this. And there is evidence to suggest this is not unwarranted: when one attractive female friend did make the first move on a date, she was spurned (by a well-educated, liberal, feminist etc. man) on account of being too forward.
That women’s bodily sexual behaviour is still normalised as demure in this context may seem remarkable but relatively benign: it is, after all (one might think), merely an aesthetic preference; there is nothing intrinsically violent or genuinely misogynistic about it. But on reflection this is naïve: the way in which cultural norms shape women’s (and men’s) behaviours reflects a more general (if often invisible) policing of women’s bodies, by both men and women, of which rape and sexual violence are one part. And these things, too, are salient in a dating context. Women are encouraged always to tell a friend where and with whom they are going on a date, and whether they take the date home (taking the date home, rather than going back to the date’s house, is recommended in most dating advice guides as the safer option).
In the UK, ‘rape’ is defined as something that can only be done by a man; the way the term is defined (or, in other countries, primarily understood) suggests that men are potential perpetrators, and women potential victims. The ‘consent’ that the woman gives to the man is the primary legitimator of sex, and yet, against a backdrop of patriarchal norms (for example, how we define ‘rape’, whom we expect to make the first move), this is a concept that already puts a woman on the back foot and undermines her subjectivity and agency: it suggests that her role in sex is to ‘allow’ it; indicates feminine passivity, and implicitly undermines and de-normalises women’s enthusiasm for sex and sexual pleasure. Conversely, men’s sexual desire is constructed as proactive, potentially predatory, perpetually up for it: ‘being sexual like a girl’ differs from ‘throwing like a girl’, in that not only women but also men suffer from our embodied performances of gendered sexuality.
I’ve been raped twice in my life. Writing this now, I find myself wondering what the reader’s response to this will be and, once again, whether this number is higher than the average; if so, whether this is because of something about me, either intrinsically, or else because of my behaviour. ‘Being someone who has been raped’ has taken me a very long time to accept. Perhaps this is because it jars with my strong sense of agency, and, however much I thought I felt solidarity rather than pity with people who had been raped, ultimately I had a sense that this extreme and violent loss of agency is not something that would ever happen to me. The effects of the first time I was raped – over a decade ago – were significant in terms of my relationships and career: I was frequently too preoccupied by the memory of the experience to work; I was unable to tell the people closest to me, and could no longer relate as fully to them. When I did try to explain, I was no good at it, not least because I could not bring myself to use the word ‘rape’ – and they would not understand my inarticulate attempt to characterise my experience. In addition to this, over a significant period of time, I would generally feel fine, but then a particular sentence of a song, or conversation I overheard between people, would make me unable to breath, and would make being in a particular place suddenly unbearable. I would sleep badly, have nightmares, and wake panicked.
I experienced tremendous anger, oddly at the seriousness with which our culture takes rape and sees it as traumatic, as I felt this could be normalising and self-fulfilling. I felt that, were it not for the seriousness with which rape is spoken of, I might be able to shake off some of the negative after-effects more quickly. Retrospectively, I think this was part of a wider attempt to re-establish the agency I’d lost by establishing a more optimistic, albeit naïve, evaluation of my experience and set of choices about how to respond to it. Collectively, men and women interpret experiences through a patriarchal lens, which includes normalising or trivialising sexual violence. There is an additional incentive to do this if one wishes to deny, as I did for psychological reasons, that something really bad has happened to one. Of course, the problem with wishful thinking, as here, is that while it may be helpful for a while, it is often untrue, and unhelpful in the longer term (see Bortolotti, 2014 for a discussion of related kinds of helpfulness in the context of psychiatric delusions).
Rape is something that happens, that happens to a large number of women, and that happens to women whom perhaps we don’t expect it to happen to. Furthermore, the overarching threat of rape often affects the experience of women, and of women’s sex lives, at least some of the time and to some extent, whether they have been raped or not. The ways in which cautionary advice altered the experience of walking pre-existed my experience of rape, though the sense of threat was significantly heightened for a period following them. Merely the threat of rape diminishes possibilities, since the ‘I can’ is set to the limits of the ‘I cannot’ (or must not, or ought not, or else…). It’s also sometimes observed that the overarching threat of rape that exists between male and female relationships can result in gratitude to non-predatory male friends, and non-rapey male lovers. It can therefore result in an unequal playing field for romantic and sexual relationships, and for friendships with men.
The sense of gratitude is of course inappropriate: non-rape should be presupposed. Women are more likely than men to err on the side of caution, both with respect to the number of sexual partners they have, and to how well they know and trust someone before they will sleep with them. Explanations for this are sometimes posited in terms of women’s lower sexual appetite (we have less testosterone), or life preferences (apparently, we seek a life-long mate and children – whether or not we think we do), or adventurousness (we are intrinsically more sensible people). Yet it is surely not ridiculous to think that here, too, women’s experience is characterised by a sense of diminished possibility, and shaped by an overarching threat of rape. Our decisions are more cautious, because we have fewer possibilities open to us, because in this most intimate part of our lives there is also a pervasive sense of threat.
Negotiating the realities of rape and rape culture is complex. It’s sometimes well-meaning people (protective relatives or perfectly nice people one meet on walks) who instil the sense of threat that mars women’s experience of the world in general and of sexual possibilities in particular. And, given the occurrence and severe effects of rape, they may even be correct to make us cautious or feel threatened – and yet diminishing a person’s sense of possibility or increasing their sense of fear is, in and of itself, a harm to that person’s good. Or again, regarding trauma as the appropriate response to rape, and recognising the seriousness of rape, can seem to normalise such a traumatic response, and arguably diminish the wellbeing of a woman who has been raped further.
It may, at times, be at odds with a woman’s claim, post-rape, that the situation is not as bad as feminist discourse prescribes, or that making a big deal of it is itself unhelpful – and to overrule or ignore her claim can even seem paternalistic or authoritarian. The solution to this complexity is not to deny that we live in a rape culture, or to assert a simplistic, libertarian form of women’s agency post-rape, as some writers have recently done (e.g. Gittos, 2015). Instead, we need to understand and critique rape culture. This means understanding and critiquing the ways in which rape culture affects our relations and interactions systemically, including at the level of the more everyday, less visible diminishment of women’s possibilities, and the ways in which women, and men, internalise, embody and perform problematic dynamics in our everyday lives.
Anastasia (Tasia) Scrutton is an Associate Professor in Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds, UK. Her current research is on religious and spiritual interpretations of depression, particularly in relation to how different interpretations shape the meaning and interpretation of the experience, and the experience itself. Prior to this, she looked at the idea of divine passibility – the idea that the God of classical theism could have emotions – through the lens of some recent work on the relationship between emotions, intelligence, the will and the body. Other interests include social philosophy, philosophy of mind, and indigenous and new religions. Recent publications include ‘Why not believe in an evil God? Pragmatic encroachment and some implications for philosophy of religion’ (Religious Studies); ‘Two Christian Theologies of Depression’ (Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology); ‘”Is depression a sin or a disease?” A critique of moralizing and medicalizing models of mental illness’ (Journal of Religion and Disability) and ‘Mental Illness’ (Routledge Handbook for Epistemic Injustice).
Being able to share these experiences would be impossible without the support of a number of good friends, and my writing of it also benefited from their expertise in philosophy, theology and other disciplines. Thanks go particularly to Adriaan van Klinken, Gerald Lang, Rachel Muers, Jack Woods, Heather Logue, Stefan Skrimshire, Paolo Santorio and Matthew Ratcliffe.
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