Do Men Keep Controlling Women Through Shame?

How is it, ask two feminist legal experts, that women have a valuable economic resource, in the form of what they call erotic capital – but are unable to translate it into political or economic power?

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Dr. Carmit Karin Yefet, left, and Prof. Shulamit Almog.Credit: Rami Shlush
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

“ in societies like ours, sex truly represents a second system of differentiation completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women, others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market.’”

– “Whatever,” by Michel Houellebecq (translation: Paul Hammond)

In 1989, two social psychologists, Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield, conducted an experiment in which men and women of different ages were offered an opportunity to engage in free, casual sex. The results were unequivocal: Seventy-five percent of the men leapt at the “free deal,” whereas none of the women expressed an interest.

That experiment was one in a series that demonstrated what everyone knows: There is greater demand for sex among men than among women. According to this logic, because women ostensibly own a “valuable resource” that is in demand among men – women should be the dominant players in the market known as “sexual economics.” In practice, however, female sexuality has traditionally been perceived by feminist scholars as an obstacle on the road to achieving equal rights and financial independence. Moreover, sex-industry workers live on the margins of society, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

The disparity between ownership of erotic capital and the ability to use it freely perturbed two members of the University of Haifa’s law faculty, Prof. Shulamit Almog and Dr. Carmit Karin Yefet. In an 85-page article, “Toward the Reconceptualization of Female Sexuality in Israeli Law,” the first part of which will be published next month in Mishpatim, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s law review (in Hebrew), the two map the route by which sexual economics has become a curse.

Screenshot from 'Pretty Woman.'

Citing a wealth of examples from the realms of law and psychology, and drawing on Israeli popular culture and politics, the authors argue that the relations of power that exist between the sexes are preserved and enforced through the inherent association of female sexuality with the concept of shame.

“I have been researching the phenomenon of prostitution for years,” Almog says, during an interview of her and Yefet by Haaretz.

“One thing that disturbed me was the place of the phenomenon vis-a-vis the background of the extensive, progressive legislative changes relating to female sexuality, and the improvement of protective measures for women, which created an incomprehensible disparity between ‘normative’ women and women who engage in prostitution. With this in mind,” Almog adds, “I started to think about how prostitution is connected to female sexuality, and how these phenomena are related to the law.”

That’s when she got in touch with Yefet, whose field of expertise is family law and juridical feminism.

Yefet, who returned to Israel three years ago after obtaining a Ph.D. in law from Yale, says that she was “upset by the fact that the whole subject of sexuality and law is extremely undeveloped in Israel, in contrast to the United States. Only two narrow areas of sexuality are addressed in Israel: rulings related to discrimination against the Pride community, and sexual pathologies such as pedophilia. There is no engagement with sex as a source of power, pleasure and self-determination. Shulamit and I encountered the theories of sexual economics together – theories that study heterosexual activity as a market in which women are the sellers and men are the buyers.

According to a 2004 article, “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and the marketing expert Kathleen Vohs, says Yefet, “heterosexual activity takes place in a market where sex is a resource of power and economic significance, whose value is set in gender terms: The value placed on female sexuality is far higher than on male sexuality.

“That’s not new, of course,” Yefet continues, “but it raises a question that, surprisingly, is rarely addressed: How does it come about that women own a valuable economic resource, but are unable to translate it into political or economic power? Not only are women unsuccessful in channeling this resource for their own gain, but their sexuality has always constituted a key means for their suppression. As juridical feminists, we want to understand how sexual economics becomes, in practice, a sexual curse.”

Archaic dichotomy

Almog and Yefet’s article presents a series of methods by which female sexuality is regimented as a phenomenon that should be hidden, a source of shame, controlled. In the past, the connection between sexuality and shame was based on a binary division between “holy” and “harlot,” and women were required to preserve their virginity to remain on the “right” side of the equation.

Almog: “Throughout history, 'promiscuous' were punished in one way or another. In the canonical English literature, for example, such women are customarily depicted as suffering from psychological problems – nymphomania, hysteria, depression or madness. Alternatively, their wanton behavior is perceived as stemming from a childhood trauma. That makes it a symptom of pathology, not a means to maximize erotic pleasure.”

In the 21st century, supposedly, this dichotomous categorization sounds conservative and archaic; women would seem to have far more diverse possibilities of realizing their erotic capital. Jane Austen would probably turn over in her grave if she read one of the dozens of posts about how to choose a flattering profile picture for the dating app Tinder. However, the article by Almog and Yefet argues that liberal discourse and the ubiquity of erotic images in the public space are liable to be misleading.

According to Almog, who has published books on law and the cinema, and on law and literature, “Today, too, there is an abundance of books, films or television series in which the exteriorization of male sexuality is perceived as an inherent part of normative masculinity that society accepts and encourages. But the holy trinity of sex-woman-shame is preserved in different ways and deters women from using sex as a resource whose value they can set.”

You argue in the article that male interest in restraining and regimenting female sexual behavior has not faded, but that the holy-harlot dichotomy has been modernized and is now part of what you call the “humiliation scale.” When did this come about, and how does it work in practice?

Almog: “The humiliation scale is used to regiment female sexuality in a manner that incorporates the liberal perception of time and the discourse of civil rights and equality. At its lower end is the woman who engages in prostitution and pays a price that we call a ‘social opprobrium tax.’ It’s an objective price imposed on every woman who engages in prostitution, in addition to the subjective prices she pays, such as physical and mental injuries. Even if we take the small minority who supposedly ‘choose’ to become prostitutes, every woman who is engaged in it pays a social price of shame and ostracism that does not exist in any other profession.

“At the high end of the scale we find a woman in a normative relationship, who has sexual relations with her partner. Between the two poles are different categories of women, classified according to the way in which they use their own sexuality: the cheap woman, the easy-to-get one, the bimbo, the slut, the tart, the wanton one. These distinctions take root at a very early age. Girls who use of the social networks distinguish between ‘easy’ and ‘hard to get,’ with the latter type of girl being at the ‘right’ end of the scale.”

Yefet: “The dichotomy between the harlot and the holy is created through the rewards-consequences equation. Women are well aware that their place on the humiliation scale is extremely unstable. They are liable to suffer the consequences each time they use their sexuality. Consider, for example, the laws of evidence and rape in the criminal code. Until recently, a woman who was raped but had dressed revealingly or seemed to flirt with the rapist had to pay the ‘consequence’ of being accused of having brought the rape on herself. The richer the victim’s past in terms of sexual permissiveness, the easier it was to accuse her of responsibility for the rape and to mitigate the assailant’s punishment.”

Among the consequences described in the researchers’ article are humiliating interrogations, which are sometimes experienced as a “second rape.” In addition, a gender distinction is made between female “adultery” (which constitutes a very strong case for divorce) and male “cheating,” and there are also phenomena unique to the digital culture, like “revenge porno” clips aimed at debasing women who have decided to leave their partner. At the same time, a system of rewards is at work for women who have successfully made use of their sexuality in a normative mode.

“Legislation that addresses sexual harassment perpetuates a situation in which sexual activity is perceived in terms of damage and shame – not in terms of autonomy and free choice,” Yefet explains. “Judges nowadays tend to award generous financial compensation to women who are said to engage in prostitution, based on the idea that this constitutes harsh and irreversible damage to their reputation. These rulings, ostensibly aimed at protecting women, have the effect of entrenching two basic assumptions. The first is that women are victims, and the second is that feminine purity is a social interest that the public at large is required to protect through the criminal code.

“Even in liberal democracies, the judicial system in practice helps inculcate the shame reflex in every woman, and this creates a sophisticated supervisory mechanism over the use of female sexuality to ensure that it does not undermine the social order, which is based on gender differentiation.”

Scarred for life?

As a result of a mechanism the researchers refer to as “preservation through change,” the distinction between holy and harlot is still with us in the 21st century, thanks to the humiliation scale and its various manifestations. For example, in a brief discussion of the incident in which veteran politician Haim Ramon kissed a soldier against her will, in 2006, Almog and Yefet maintain that to describe “a forced kiss of two or three seconds” as provoking serious and prolonged mental trauma is liable to set back the struggle for gender equality rather than advance it.

“[Ramon’s] act was perceived so gravely that the prosecution resorted to wiretapping as an investigative tactic, even though the law does not permit the use of that procedure in cases of suspicion of indecent conduct,” they write. The judges, they add, chose to describe the offense as “invasive, injurious and humiliating” and as giving rise to “repulsion, disgust and abhorrence” – very powerful words, which could transmit the message that women are so weak that every momentary physical contact with a man is liable to scar them for life.

The authors go on to castigate the distinction Israeli law makes between sexual offenses and other criminal acts, terming this “regulatory redundancy” that reflects “moralistic, self-righteous panic,” and actually causes more harm than good.

Yefet: “This is part of the rewards-consequences system: Whereas a decent woman gets a reward in the form of regulatory redundancy, women in prostitution must cope with an opposite reality, in which the court does not allow them to be compensated for sexual harassment or rape, even if they were victims of brutal violence.”

At the same time, throughout the interview, Almog and Yefet point out repeatedly that the problem is not that there is a surplus of complaints about sexual harassment. The problem is that the judicial system draws a connection between female sexuality and shame.

As Yefet observes, “In libel suits, for example, the courts take an ambivalent approach toward the term ‘homosexual.’ In the famous judgment of Amsalem vs. Klein [involving a professional basketball player who sued a newspaper for allegedly implying that he was gay], the court held, effectively, that a homosexual proclivity is not an insult, but because part of the public thinks it is, the court awarded the basketball player compensation. In the prevailing atmosphere of moralistic panic, the court will never defend prostitution in the same way. There is total denial of sexual economics.

“Recently,” she continues, “when a labor court was supposed to calculate the salary accruing to women who engage in prostitution, it set it at the minimum wage and hinted that it would not sully its hands with this issue. When it comes to female sexuality, there’s a sense of a politics of revulsion. All the sexual harassment regulation in Israel differentiates it from the other offenses in the criminal code in a way that, in the end, ironically, is harmful to women. Every incident of a sexual nature immediately becomes a criminal trial in which exceptional investigative methods are allowed, like the wiretapping we saw in the Ramon episode.”

Even though judges go out of their way to compensate and accommodate “decent” women who fall victim to sexual harassment, in practice there is a serious problem of under-reporting.

“Let’s say a burglar entered your home,” Almog says. “You will immediately call the police and file a complaint, right? Astonishingly, though, even women who become victims of sexual offenses feel shame and humiliation that has the effect of preventing them from making use of the tools the judicial system makes available to them. In practice, fewer than 15 percent of the women who are assaulted choose to file a complaint, and those who do go to the police almost always request confidentiality, for fear that society will punish them in different ways.”

Almog began her academic career at the Hebrew University’s law school, and went on to do graduate degrees at the University of Haifa. Yefet studied law at Bar-Ilan University before going on to Yale.

“One reason for the successful connection between us is that we come from different worlds,” Almog says, adding, “I am a secular woman, while Karin is religiously observant. The differences in age, faith and ethnic origin make the connection between us interesting.”

Christianity vs. Judaism

Yefet, who drew close to religion while at Yale, and who lives today in Afula, says she was astounded to see business cards from female escort services scattered on the sidewalk on her way to the interview, which took place in a Tel Aviv café. In reply to a question, she says she doesn’t see a contradiction between her call for more liberated and autonomous female sexuality and her observance of a religious way of life.

“Christianity draws a connection between sexuality and shame,” she says, “but in Judaism female sexuality is perceived as holy. All the strictures concerning menstruation are intended to preserve that holiness and to transform sexual relations into a special rite and not an everyday thing. These laws enhance the erotic relationship over time, and quite a few nonreligious couples have also adopted them.”

Still, Judaism does not encourage the use of sex for pleasure, only for reproduction.

Yefet: “That is not accurate. Most rabbis today will readily approve the use of contraception if the wife wants it. The Bible itself has examples of women who used their sexuality intelligently. Even the story of Rahab [in the Book of Joshua], who engaged in prostitution most of her life, ends with her establishing an important dynasty of prophets, including the prophetess Huldah. Judaism is actually more progressive than Christianity in its approach toward female sexuality.”

Your article ends with a call to focus on the empowering sides of female sexuality and on the right to say “Yes,” instead of limiting judicial and public discussion to the right to say “No.” Why do you think there isn’t more feminist writing on these subjects?

Yefet: “Feminism should learn from queer theory. We are calling for the shattering of the link between female sexuality and shame. A positive conceptualization of sex that allows women to investigate their sexuality as a source of empowerment. We aspire to a utopia in which there will be no differences between men and women in terms of their status in the sexual economics market.”

But many will argue that this utopia cannot be realized because of the anatomical and evolutionary differences between men and women.

Almog: “For decades, feminist researchers have addressed the question of whether the gender divide is a result of biological differences or social constructs, and we still don’t have adequate answers. I believe that we cannot deny the tremendous power of social constructs in this connection. Female sexuality is shaped as something that is liable to draw opprobrium onto the woman and the family from a very young age, in both traditional religious societies and in ostensibly liberal societies in which every Hollywood movie rewards the ‘decent’ woman with a wedding, or transforms Julia Roberts from harlot to holy through her fateful encounter with Richard Gere in ‘Pretty Woman.’”

Contrary to most academic articles, you don’t make do with the description of a phenomenon but also offer a prescription. Do you believe that the present situation is amenable to change? What conditions need to exist for women to stop paying the consequences for using their sexuality?

Almog: “No simple or short-term solution is possible for such a deeply rooted situation. No legislation can resolve this problem. A concrete solution is to try to set aside the humiliation scale in order to give women back more control over their sexuality. At the same time, action is needed to eradicate prostitution in its current sense. In a world where prostitution exists, there will always be sexual harassment. We have no objection in principle to an economic use of sex, but only in a world in which sexual commerce does not entail opprobrium and shame.

“In a utopian world, all people are ‘prostitutes,’ men and women alike. Women will be the agents of their desires, and be able to initiate sex without consequences in the form of social humiliation. Just as there are women who choose to be lawyers, and others who choose to be film directors, kindergarten teachers or police officers, there will be women who choose to sell their bodies erotically. Every profession honors its practitioner.”

That’s a very hard utopia to imagine.

Almog: “It’s hard for you to imagine it, because you live in a culture in which a Gordian knot binds female sexuality and shame. The moment we begin to undo that knot, the other conventions will also fade away.”

Yefet: “In the age of the dichotomy between holy and harlot, everything was black and white, but even in the liberal age of the humiliation scale, one sees 50 shades of gray. All that remains now is to aspire to a judicial, social and cultural discourse that will give expression to all the different manifestations of female sexuality. If additional researchers lend a hand to thinking about how to articulate the laws in their areas of expertise in a manner free from shame and opprobrium, perhaps we won’t have to wait for the fourth millennium for a new judicial system that will allow human sexuality – male and female – to serve as a source of pleasure, empowerment and self-fulfillment.”

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