When Women’s Bodies Are Not Autonomous: Lessons from Harvey Weinstein

Angry. Sad. Upsetting. Disgusting.

I am going to assume that most of my readers have seen the newsreels about Harvey Weinstein’s misogynistic, selfish, threatening, and disgusting display of male privilege in his sexual assaults on females in the movie business.

Although I understand the principle of innocent before proven guilty, just hearing the accusations made me cringe a bit.

Harvey Weinstein’s case represents male entitlement at its best. In fact, this is male entitlement mixed with delusion on the part of Weinstein: the delusion that his powerful position in Hollywood allows him to prey on and assault women looking to succeed in the business. Or maybe it is not delusion, but rather a symptom of a system that allows men to decide what female sexuality should and will be?

Symptoms of Gender Dominance

Cases like these spiral from a system that allows men to use women however they wish to fulfill not just sexual desire, but gender dominance. I would argue that Weinstein’s actions are an example of demeaning women who want to play their cards at success in a male-dominated industry. It is an example of a system that says women can succeed, but not until they are fully aware of their second-class status and it will always be men with the upper hand. It lets women know that their sexuality is not their own; that female bodies are not autonomous.

Powerlessness via sexual powers not of women’s choice is the name of the game.

And, unfortunately, it does not start and stop with the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world. It so happens that men like Weinstein are the most noticeable from a publicity standpoint because of their elite socioeconomic status.

A Global Problem

However, this kind of sexual manipulation of not just women, but also young girls, happens all over the world via the sex trade, a segment of human trafficking. This trade occurs in poor countries across the earth, but also in staggering numbers in the United States. Statistics show that forced sexual labor is the most lucrative of other forms of human trafficking. Women make up the largest number of sex trafficking victims, but children become victims as well.

Women and young girls are left without a choice when they are sold into slavery via the sex trade. This practice is often used as an effective way into financial gain. And, it is a system that pins women as the tools through which men financially flourish. It is a system that says women can contribute to the economy, but only one built for and by men.

The sex trade serves to remind the social structures that be that while poor men may struggle, women, as well as young girls can and do suffer to feed them. Women, human beings, are kidnapped, held against their will, and forced into using their bodies for money. This is sexual assault in disguise as people trying to earn money. It is sexual assault made to look like the choice of those who engage in sex work.

The kidnap, torture, and forced sexual acts that define the sex trade speak to every power of human degradation. Yes, it often goes unnoticed because our society spends time focusing on the ego-feeding, lewd acts of the likes of Harvey Weinstein. We forget that the kind of suffering Weinstein’s victims so unfortunately and unnecessarily endured happens every day in many corners of our country and world.

Never A Pass

Understand this: I sympathize with the women who have been victimized by Harvey Weinstein and others like him. There is never a price too high that can give sexual assault a pass, be it an Oscar or a buyout for silence.

Yet, let us recognize that there are women and young girls who are forced daily into sexual engagements not of their choosing, lest their families are threatened, their lives are threatened, they want to eat, or are faced with social stigma so paralyzing that they feel they cannot escape the life of the sex trade.

The sex trade is a “business” designed to create a sexualization of women and young girls, centered on violent usurpation of human choice. It is exploitation plain and simple. Exploitation happens in the shadows of men’s fear of too many gains in  women’s rights – no matter how much facetime and money they give to the liberal agenda.

Beyond The High Profile Cases

Yes, we have the televised, high-profile misogynistic sexual offenders like Harvey Weinstein, but we also have the same types that live underground. They may not be billionaires, but their powers to use women and children to their benefit are no more limited. This is where male privilege stands with its iron fist. Like Weinstein, the purveyors and overseers (pimps, etc.) of the sex trade negate the humanity of their victims by looking at human bodies as commodities. And, they recklessly negate and destroy the autonomy of their victims.

Even in poverty, the autonomy and respect for women gets thrown out with their dignity. We need to look at the global impact of treating women like they are tools in a hand-basket.

Commodities come in many forms, yet they might be labeled markedly different. Some come behind closed doors of motion picture tycoons, while others in the desolate and desperate openness of the poorest corners on the earth. Whether it is in a high-rise suite of Hollywood elite or shanty-town shacks in the poorest places on earth, women are used as commodities that benefit men. Some of these women are in our backyards.

This is the farthest thing from female empowerment.

One fact that rings true is that as long as men can choose how and when women’s and girl’s sexuality is used, there can never be such a thing as female empowerment. There can never be such a thing as autonomous bodies with a choice to do with themselves what they choose.

In all our anger over the Weinstein scandal, let us not forget that sexual assault happens daily in the disguised world of the sex trade. Women are used and kept out of the discussion as to how they may contribute to their success or the economy.

As long as female sexuality is up for grabs by anyone wanting either a quick buck or a blow job, there cannot be an adequate discussion of how women’s rights are impacted by men’ use and abuse of women’s bodies. We cannot forget about these victims of rape by focusing only on the Harvey Weinstein types who intimidate women through threat of predatory sexual acts. That means we need to look at the problem as a whole: that there is a pervasive presumption that women’s bodies are not autonomous, even in the institutions that boast their liberal agenda of female empowerment. Until women’s bodies are seen as self-governing and not a sale item, then women’s rights on a global scale will remain tenuous and wishful for the collective whole of humanity.

A Sexy Boyfriend Shirt A Sexy Woman Make

In Western culture, sexiness seems to be established as an art of mimicry. The established tradition is that women are collectively encouraged to exude their sex powers in the exact manner that is portrayed in the media and in the online world of Instagram, Facebook, and advertisements. When I mention sexuality, I am not talking strictly about the act of sex, but rather all that encompasses womanhood; our unique shapes, menstruation, the power of our intuition, and our ability to love unconditionally. There is no one right meaning of sexuality. For, it is internal and individual in nature. Yet, most sexual images of women tend to be embedded within the context of men’s desires, loosening the sovereignty in feminine sexuality.  

I have covered much ground in my previous posts about how women are cultured into dieting and a fixation on their superficiality of their looks. Obviously, this is an issue I care deeply about as a woman who has been in the grips of a severely unhealthy relationship with food and my body. What I ultimately strive to communicate to my readers is that dieting, food rules, and weight loss are symbols of much greater problems of gender oppression through the standardization and submission to the female thin ideal. And, when I mention the thin ideal, I include all of the measurements that are portrayed as “perfection” by the media and diet culture at large. The message we receive on a daily basis  is that a thin body is a powerful body. And, if one has a powerful body, they are a powerful person. Of course, I believe that this ideation is a fallacy, created through nothing more than the arbitration of pop culture. Moreover, the standard womanly ideal has been marketed, taught, and instilled in women in the wake of an over-technologized and hyper-competitive culture. The idea that a thin body is a powerful body is a falsity because when a person caters to a vision of what others would have them be, they lose their individual power. And, with the loss of individual power comes a coquettish game of sensitivity towards one’s body, one’s behavior, and one’s sense of sexuality, whatever that means to them. Yet, women still succumb to the ideation of not just thinness, but also the mass-produced images of sexiness. What do sexiness and thinness have in common? The constructed version of sexiness in our media penetrated culture comes through images of bone-thin Victoria Secret models, commercials portraying women with this body type eating a double-cheeseburger, and perfume advertisements that look more like a scene from “Fifty Shades of Gray” than an endorsement for flowery smells. We are taught that thin is sexy. And, I believe that when sexiness is defined on a such a mass-produced level by marketers whose sole desire is to sell to the most vulnerable, a cultural meaning of sexiness is established. And, who wants to fit into this ideal the most? Young girls coming of age.

Yes, we live in an age where technology and the media tend to dictate what is sexy. I believe that this confuses many young women and men into thinking that the idealized pictures of sexiness are the key to their own sex appeal and if they can just look like the pictures we see, they can be valuable and desired. Although the focus of my blog is on empowering women, I also believe that messages about sexiness are gendered in such a way that fits a very particular Barbie and Ken ideal, which has an immense effect on men just as much as it does women. Furthermore, this creates a fixed idea of sexuality on a mass level; seen in clothing lines, billboards, cologne commercials, retail catalogues, etc. Women and their bodies are routinely scaled against men’s approval and seeming desires in women. Please remember that when I say words like “dictate”, I am referring to a cultural and societal context. Thus, on a cultural level, even sexuality is put up on a grand, over-marketed scale, and is routinely scrutinized around female’s external appearance. Thus, in my view, female sexuality is masculinized.

A particular example of a masculine-charged ideation of sexuality I recently came across is in a clothing item at Old Navy: “The Boyfriend Shirt”. This is really just a long and loose-fitting plaid shirt. It has the looks and patterns of any regular “The Boyfriend Shirt”. However, instead of just calling a fucking plaid shirt a plaid shirt, Old Navy termed it with the sexual and romantic intentions of a coquettish Burger King  ad. I think this seemingly trivial example of how men permeate women’s fashion has more implications than just a cute name. If you think it ridiculous to reduce my vigilant stance about female empowerment to a plaid shirt, hear me out and consider the multi-layer context of the name of this clothing item.

To term something “The Boyfriend Shirt” has a multi-layer cultural context that brings in both a masculine dictation of female sexuality through a relatively common clothing item; and also engages in body bias. Both of these contexts have implications about gender and sexuality embedded in a pretty common and comfy fashion style. The components of both sexuality, body bias, and gender all indicate on some level that the looks and appeal of the female body and the clothes that cover it revolve around a male ideal.

Looking at the masculine approach to female sexuality in “The Boyfriend Shirt”: how often are sex scenes in movies followed by a woman parading around in nothing else but a man’s button down shirt? I never fully understood this because it seems tedious to take the time to put the man’s shirt on, have to button it up, only to eventually change back into the original outfit worn before the romp in the sack. But, that is besides the point. Or is it? Because perhaps “The Boyfriend Shirt” is designed to make the women purchasing these shirts feel like they are inching a little closer to movie-style sexiness. Perhaps, by labeling this loose-fitting shirt with a masculine name, women can feel like they are appealing a little more to an arbitrary  and socially constructed ideal of sexuality; there is a certain level of comfortableness assumed in the image of a woman wearing a man’s shirt. Now, this is  not to say that there is anything wrong with a woman wearing a man’s shirt, but the issue I take with a label like “The Boyfriend Shirt” is that it asserts a masculine hold over a female’s looks and body. Along the lines of the movie sex scenes, a woman wearing a boyfriend-style shirt fits into a cultural assertion that female sexuality is contained within the realm of male attention and desire, rather than within the individuality of each and every female. Moreover, “The Boyfriend Shirt” suggests a certain external male-centeredness in female sexuality and that our looks and sex appeal can be dictated and judged by a cultural male approval. I am certainly not attempting to convey that women must and cannot wear “The Boyfriend Shirt”, but rather suggesting that it is one of many cultural symbols that portray just how much masculine domination controls the idea of what female sexiness looks like.

Perhaps “The Boyfriend Shirt” also implies that if you wear a loose-fitting clothing item like this, you might have more of a masculine build. Maybe if one does not fit into a more slim-fitting, boobs hanging out, skin-cutting piece of clothing they must hide their feminine features of fat, curves, breasts, hips, etc. Thus, I see an element of body bias in “The Boyfriend Shirt”. There is an implication that a larger shirt hides the bodies that correlate with femininity. Please remember that when I speak of the feminine, I indicate an archetype. There are many different female body shapes, sizes, etc. The female body is one designed to procreate if a women so desires to do. For that to happen, a woman needs an adequate amount of fat on her body. These are the features that have been historically portrayed in art, literature, spirituality, and mythology. And these are the features that the thin ideal seeks to hide. Moreover, “The Boyfriend Shirt” seeks to embrace a covering up of these very spiritual and sexual features.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Sarah, it’s a plaid shirt. Really?” Why am I so fixated on the name of this shirt? Because the sexual implications behind the name of the shirt speak to both the cultural message that women must hide their sexual selves, seen through the body, while simultaneously condoning a cultured masculine ideal of female sexiness. This is a paradox that exists within the many emblems of our current culture. And the paradox is that while women are expected to be objects  of sexual desire for men to look at, they must also do it under the covers. This is exactly where I believe the problem lies. When women are handed down conceptions of sexiness through basic facets of culture, like fashion, it causes confusion, competition, and unease. When there is a masculine-infused version of what female sex appeal looks like, it strips the power of the individual to embrace her own sense of femininity, her expression, and her definition of sexiness. This is especially true when as a collective whole, women are taught that sexuality is power, yet cannot have sovereignty over her own sex appeal.

Maybe my Seinfeldian mind is debating an issue that is unworthy of or too trivial for attention, but I am raising awareness to it anyways. You might think I am trying to convince you that the persuasive powers of a shirt are of national importance. Really, I could care less if someone chooses to wear a shirt with boyfriend in its name. If you like the look and feel of “The Boyfriend Shirt”, then the more power to you. Hey, dare I say that I love plaid shirts myself! I wear them quite frequently. However, what I truly want to impress is that often in names of products, there are implications. Marketers and corporations need to be creative in the naming of products because they know what sells. They need to cater to the masses! But, you see, this is exactly why “The Boyfriend Shirt” struck me in such an hyperbolized manner. For, when it  is implied that sexiness for a woman is based on relations to men, it distracts us from our own definition of sexuality. So, yes, I believe that this shirt also pigeon-holes sexuality to strictly heterosexuality and leaves out the various forms and facets that an individual’s sex powers and orientation means to them. It distracts us from our individual power to exude our womanly strengths from the inside out, which I believe is the heart of our sexuality. It is not just the act of sex itself, but rather our deep trust and relationship with our body that encompasses what sexuality means to an individual.