Why Sex Matters

I know I am on a kick recently. Someone politely asked me what all this discussion of sexual assault and lipstick had to do with work/life balance, motherhood, and similar issues concerning women in public life. Another asked, is it prudent for you to write about this when you want professional women to trust you with their life histories? The answer is simple: No, it’s not prudent. And the fact that it’s not prudent is precisely the issue.

On some level, it is possible – and sometimes politically necessary – to isolate issues and to distance ourselves from them. Maternity leave is perhaps the easiest example. Some institutions, such as the Department of State, still require women to take sick leave to have a child. We treat childbirth, upon which our continued existence as a species depends, as an illness. Women who do not have enough sick leave saved up can invoke the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that leave is unpaid. This is an easily understood problem with a clear fix. You don’t have to get emotional to see my point.

But even that simple issue reflects bigger problems with the role of women in public life. One of the women in my binder put it this way: “As a woman, your invitation to the table is conditional.” At work, we are seen as optional, not indispensable. Likewise, institutions assume that our income is not critical to our household finances.

The only way to get around that right now is to style ourselves as men. That can mean following Ruth Marcus’ advice to hide our attractiveness, which is particularly devastating for single women whose only hope of finding a partner is during their nonstop workday. That can mean being the kind of woman who schedules her C-section for the weekend and comes into work early on Monday, earning the praise of her colleagues and superiors (not a theoretical example). For many women, it means paying out-of-pocket for breast reductions so that our bodies don’t automatically compromize our public image (also a true story). When we are harassed or assaulted, we are told to remain silent, lest it harm our own reputation (it happened to me in 2004, in 2006, and in 2007). In essence, to gain acceptance as professionals, we have to prove that we are just like men.

I find that unacceptable. At the end of the day, sex – that loaded term – is what distinguishes men and women. It is the number one method of human reproduction. It is one of the strongest desires expressed by our species, the pursuit of which causes people to seek power and to put it in jeopardy, to earn and to spend money, to win and to lose social status. It is the area in which social attitudes toward men versus women differ most sharply. And it is the topic that lurks under our most powerful emotions. Which issues most deeply divide our nation? Abortion and gay marriage – both of which revolve around sex.

I don’t ask any of the women in my binder to discuss their sexuality unless they choose to, and I do not want to become known as a single-issue advocate. But after years of trying to talk around this issue, I think it’s time to talk about it. Too many of us stay silent about sexual harassment and sexual assault, accepting the argument that it is all women’s fault. We live fearfully in the gray zone, where we want to be found attractive by potential partners but do not want to be blamed for the unwanted attention that also comes our way.

By mainstream logic, men are so weak that a pair of “toned triceps” can threaten our national security. If women want to work alongside men, they must do everything in their power to avoid tempting them. We pretend that the United States is so different from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran, but our society merely expresses the same prejudices in different ways. I am no more willing to stay silent about our own distorted attitudes than I am to endorse public stonings – especially not when the women of Afghanistan are risking their lives for change. In comparison, my worries about my reputation and possible future employment seem absurd.

I love my country passionately. I believe that we can only fulfill our potential as a nation if women are fully included in public life. I will not betray the trust of the women in my binder or put words in their mouths, nor do I wish to make them uncomfortable by affiliating them directly with my outspoken voice – which is why I repeat that these are my opinions, not theirs.

But I have agreed to remain silent for far too long. No more. If a teenager in Kentucky can stand up for herself,* so can I. Stay tuned.


4 thoughts on “Why Sex Matters

  1. I think that talking about it opens up the potential for change. The world is the same no matter where you are at at the moment. SEX is the great divide between men and women and the more we talk about it I think the better- or might provide opportunity to look at the different life experiences and see how and what can be done about more women in the public sphere. For now India is the case example yet we know that there are places in which the same happens all the time- and worse

    • Thanks, Chilufya. I hope that turns out to be true. I am certainly willing to risk it, but that won’t make much difference until many other women do the same thing.

  2. It is important to speak up, Chilufya, even if you don’t receive the enlightened response from men you might hope to achieve. Some causes are worth suffering for (Havel). I don’t endorse suffering, but I do endorse saying what’s true if it reflects a social injustice that needs to be examined. Sexual politics have a long way to go. but keep in mind that big changes have happened already. My older sister, for example, who is in her early sixties, was one of the first women to attend her law school. Abortoin rights only became possible in the early 70s. Things have changed. Now we need people such as yourself to keep pressing. Thank you. Scott Driscoll

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