half the sky + sex science

Posted by Emily Nagoski

Into the earl gray tempest of whether or not it's important to feel comfortable with cervical mucus, flowback, and other fluids, fell Half the Sky, the Pulitzer Prize winning book about global oppression of women. I started reading it this weekend because it happens to be my school's summer reading for the incoming students.

You should read it. I mean it. Go. Buy. Read. Immediately.

In addition to the visceral reinforcement of the message that global education and economic opportunities for women must be at the center of social justice action, the book has shown me some important things about how the stuff I blog about - the sciencey goodness especially - can help folks understand the big issues around sex and gender. For example, from page 6:

Paradoxically, it is the countries with the most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan, and Iran, that have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes. Since young men in those societies rarely sleep with their girlfriends, it has become acceptable for them to relieve their sexual frustrations with prostitutes.

The implicit social contract is that upper class girls will keep their virtue, while young men find satisfaction in brothels. And the brothels will be staffed with slave girls trafficked from Nepal or Bangladesh or poor Indian villages.

Two things I've blogged about before can help us understand this dynamic more fully, and help us work more effectively to create positive change.

First, I spent a bunch of time explaining that sexual motivation is not a drive. But why does it matter? Is it not ultimately a minute academic question? It is not.

If you think of sex like a drive, like hunger or thirst, which has to be FED for survival, then you can invent some justification for believing that men, ya know, need to relieve their pent up sexual energy. If they NEED sex, then it's potentially reasonable to generate institutions that allow them to have it. Men need to eat - if they have no one to cook for them, they can go to a restaurant. Men need sex - if they have no one to have sex with, they can go to a brothel. Dig?

But if sex isn't a drive (and it isn't!), then you lose that justification for permitting men to have commercial sex. Without the justification, you lose the market, and without the market, the sex economy rapidly shrinks.

It matters that sex isn't a drive because when you believe sex is a drive, like hunger, then you start giving it privilege it doesn't deserve. If, on the other hand, you treat it like the incentive motivation system it is, might you not lose the cultural permission for men having sex with prostitutes, which would not only decrease demand but also increase social outrage and legal protection around sex slaves?

Second, this is a beautiful (beautiful like "Guernica," in that disturbing kind of way) illustration of how large scale patterns emerge from low-level phenomena. A slight average difference in sexual motivation across genders (men have slightly but reliably higher sexual motivation than women) results in population level gap in sexual motivation, which gets filled in by a culture according to that culture's ideals and norms around sex. In this case, the gap gets filled by prostitution, including sexual slavery.

It's an indirect and non-obvious consequence.

So let's apply these two things to action, eh?

  1. Stop short any assumption or assertion that sex is a right or a need. Men don't need sex. Nothing bad will happen to them if they don't get it - but plenty bad happens to women if men believe they deserve sex no matter what.
  2. Sex slavery won't end just because a nation create and enforces some anti-slavery laws. It ends when you give women better education and economic opportunities. This is "environmental engineering" in the context of social justice: you don't simply shoot all the birds in the flock - i.e., you don't simply arrest everyone who breaks the law. You change the environment so that the members of the system have the opportunity to behave in totally different ways.

And if you want to start making a difference, right now, in the life of a woman, participate in microfinance.