This essay first appeared on Cliterati on May 19th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.
I’m sure you all heard about Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy a few weeks ago; because she inherited a faulty gene from her mother she has a much higher chance than other women of eventually developing breast (87%) and ovarian (50%) cancer, and decided to have the breast tissue removed so as to prevent it before it could start. Now, breast reconstruction was part of the process; had she not made a public announcement, nobody would have known the difference from looking at her (not even in a skin-tight costume). But according to her New York Times article about the procedure, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.” The revelation has triggered an avalanche of commentary from all conceivable angles, including praise for her courage, criticism of her decision as extreme, and hand-wringing over the costs of the genetic tests and surgeries. And though one might accuse all of those writers (including me, I’m afraid) of capitalizing on her misfortune to promote their own agendas, none of the comments were quite so nakedly revealing as the avalanche of tweets saying “poor Brad Pitt”, lamenting the demise of her famous “fun bags” or bizarrely declaring that a condition she has had since conception is somehow the karmic result of her being a “home wrecking whore” several decades later.
Revealing, that is, of the common but barbaric belief that women’s bodies are public property. Few people care what any given individual man, whether private citizen or celebrity, does with his body unless drugs are involved, and even then most of the original prohibitionist rhetoric revolved around the effects of male drug use on women (drinkers failing to support their families, cocaine causing rape, opium linked to Chinese prostitution, etc). But the dominant cultural narrative is that whatever any given individual woman does with her body is a legitimate public concern, especially when sex is involved. If Angelina had decided to replace her defective teeth with dentures, I sincerely doubt it would’ve attracted more than a few snide comments about kooky Hollywood types throwing money around; secondary sexual characteristics are, however, quite another thing. Every personal decision made by any woman, no matter how humble or unknown, is considered a legitimate subject for discussion, regulation and even legislation if it relates, however tenuously, to the issue of sex or reproduction. Adult human beings with titles and degrees actually stand up in the second decade of the 21st century and insist with straight faces that any individual woman’s pregnancy and birth control choices are matters of Grave Concern to the State, and that her miscarriages and motivations for engaging in sex are subject to criminal investigation and violent suppression.
Nor does this have anything to do with “patriarchy” as the feminists like to claim; a great deal of the nosiest, most judgmental and most dangerous obsession about women’s bodies is perpetrated by other women. The Swedish model of prostitution law, which frames women as eternal adolescents unable to make sexual choices for ourselves, was developed by radical feminists in Sweden and is popular with their sisters around the world; it is currently being pushed in Scotland by MSP Rhoda Grant and in Ireland by a coalition led by the nuns who ran the infamous Magdalene Laundries. In the United States, the feminist-beloved “Violence Against Women Act” has resulted in increased government control over women’s lives. In Europe, any kind of media depiction of women is declared to be potentially harmful to us, and UK feminists are at the forefront of the moral panic over “sexualization”, an “ill-defined concept [which] seems to imagine that if it weren’t for equally ill-defined bogeymen like ‘the Media’ and ‘Patriarchy’…we would all grow up in a blissful, chaste state and never, ever, ever be interested in dirty, nasty sex…and that this would be a good thing.” Anti-sex crusaders even rail against “clothes, cosmetics, diets, gym membership, trips to the hair salon, the waxing salon and the nail salon” as indicators of women’s “self-loathing” and the imaginary “hypersexualization” of modern culture, and blame pop stars’ revealing outfits for “sex trafficking”.
The need to control women’s bodies is rooted in the fact that though many men can die or fail to reproduce without adversely affecting the population, every woman who does so reduces the birth rate. But humans haven’t been an endangered species for a long time now, and modern nations don’t depend on biological descent from current citizens to keep the taxes flowing into their coffers. Furthermore, there are a lot of troublesome biological urges we somehow manage to resist enshrining in law; in fact, most laws tend to go in exactly the opposite direction. It’s long past time for humans, and most especially our governments and other powerful institutions, to stop pretending that the bodies and personal choices of individual women are anybody’s business but their own.