Seeking a voice for open questions about the sexual rights of women


A false belief prevails everywhere that a feminist who believes in the sexual rights of women (I hate to say ‘sex-positive’ in any context) is a ‘porn supporter feminist.’ Porn, I think, is a misogynist attitude which promotes the idea that women are always born to free their body for the pleasures of men and that women are shown in a subordinate role. Pornography contributes to sexism, violence against women, is a cause of rape, and also eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women. The so-called sex war among feminists of the late seventies and early eighties had divided feminists in two distinct groups: anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminists.

The anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Robin Morgan, Diana Russell, Alice Schwarzer, and Robert Jensen—argue that pornography is harmful to women, and constitutes a strong causality or facilitation of violence against women. On the other side, sex-positive feminists like Camille Paglia, Ellen Willis, Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, Gayle Rubin, Carol Queen, Annie Sprinkle, Avedon Carol, Tristan Taormino, and Betty Dodson argue that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom. They see sexual orientation and gender as social constructs that are heavily influenced by society and that patriarchy limits sexual expression. They are in favor of giving people of all genders more sexual opportunities, rather than restricting pornography. Sex-positive feminists generally reject sexual essentialism as they believe sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions.

What is wrong with anti-porn feminists is they reduced the sexual needs of women and many of them were against heterosexuality as the normal fashion prevailing at that time by second-wave feminists. To deny male supremacy in the sexual act (which I think a very odd idea to admit), they argued and showed their fascination towards same-sex alliances or lesbianism. If we look at the biographies of such feminists, we can find a lot of instances where (and readers please mark that anti-porn or sex-negative or radical feminists are in some ways similar to the sex-positive feminists) they admit lesbianism and other sexualities that deviate from societal norms.

The sex-positive movement does not, in general, make moral or ethical distinctions between heterosexual or homosexual sex or indeed masturbation for people who are otherwise celibate, regarding these choices as matters of personal preference. On the other hand, in the name of rebellion against male dominancy, the radical and anti-porn feminists do not support heterosexual relationships. They believe that sexual disparities between the sexes make it impossible to resolve the main issues in society. They believe marriage is a defining feature of women’s oppression. They are against motherhood and childbearing because patriarchy recognizes maternity as the key element for a relationship of dominance and exploits others for its own benefit. These male hatred attitudes bring the second-wave feminists to a place where they and the sex-positive feminists find space under the same umbrella from a sexuality perspective.

The real question, sexual rights of women or women’s right over their own bodies remains neglected in the war of these two radical groups of feminists. When sex-positive feminists argue that the sexual freedom of women is essential to the overall freedom of women and thus, there should not be limitations such as social policy or societal stigma placing restrictions on sex trade workers (McElroy), they often forget that sex trade is not a freedom and no woman can choose this profession by their own motive of heart. They are bound to choose such a profession and it is patriarchy which makes them to be oppressed by this pathetic profession. Prostitution is a tool for the oppression, domination and humiliation of women, which reinforces the cultural toleration of physical, verbal and sexual violence against women. By assimilating sexual freedom with sex trade, we are diminishing the importance of women’s rights over their own bodies and we are forcing them to be oppressed by patriarchy.

In total, we can see the term ‘sex’ and ‘female sexuality’ has been totally misinterpreted in the discourse of Western feminism. Sexuality is not only a bodily matter and it does not limit itself to only sexual behavior and sexual activities, though they are a major factor. And most of the real meaning of female sexuality relatively termed with her body as well mind.

Let us discuss how the ‘body’ of a female acquired its place in the total Western discourse. In the nineteenth century, when the Contagious Diseases Act was enforced in Britain and women were forcibly examined for venereal disease, the ‘body’ also came into prominence. Josephine Butler was the prominent figure to raise her voice through the campaign. In feminists history, we find the Seneca Falls Convention (July 19-20, 1848) ( does not mention the body, it was first mentioned as a marker of race and class differences within the feminist movement by Sojourner Truth in her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (’t_I_a_Woman%3F) at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth told in her speech, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash a well! And ain’t I a woman?”

However, credit goes to Simone De Beauvoir, who embodied the ‘female body’ with a philosophical strategy. In the first chapter of The Second Sex, Beauvoir reviews the data of biology and later she provides an account of the phenomenology of the body as lived throughout the different stages of a woman’s life. Here she is explicitly offering her narrative as an account of lived experience, the body in situations and not as part of the data of biology. She discusses social issues primarily affecting women in our culture, such as birth control, abortion, the family, sexual discrimination and harassment, and rape. Though Beauvoir begins her book with women’s bodies, she later she states that ‘connoisseurs’ do not declare every human with a uterus as a woman. “It would appear then,” she writes, “that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.” Beauvoir thus rejects the female body and from that time onward, feminist philosophy has been denying the need of a female body or female sexuality, and their only aim was in liberating women from reproductive tasks. Women were barred from beauty consciousness and from using cosmetics or fashionable dress and ‘femininity’ of a female was considered as the ‘negative’ aspects of her nature. Luce Irigaray, a Belgian feminist, philosopher, linguist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and cultural theorist identified this ‘masculinism’ of feminists in her well-known book Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) (translated by G. C. Gill, and published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca). She pointed out that in the thoughts of these feminists, man was presented as the universal norm, and sexual difference was not recognised or recognised in such a way that woman was conceptualised as the ‘maternal-feminine,’ which had been left behind in the move to abstract thought.

I don’t know the actual facts and happenings with an infant girl-child, but in Asian and African countries, it’s a regular practice to breastfeed girls for a shorter time than boys so that women can try to get pregnant again with a boy as soon as possible. In the case of adolescent girls, they are provided with less food than their brothers by their own mothers. As a result, girls miss out on life-giving nutrition during a crucial time in their development, which stunts their growth and weakens their resistance to disease. Sunita Kishor published a survey report in American Sociological Review (April 1993). In her article “May God Give Sons to All’: Gender and Child Mortality in India,” she writes “despite the increased ability to command essential food and medical resources associated with development, female children [in India] do not improve their survival chances relative to male children with gains in development. Relatively high levels of agricultural development decrease the life chances of females while leaving males’ life chances unaffected; urbanization increases the life chances of males more than females…Clearly, gender-based discrimination in the allocation of resources persists and even increases, even when availability of resources is not a constraint.” Is this not gender discrimination as related to the body of a female?

It may be possible that the girl-child in Western countries would not have to suffer like those of Asian and African countries. I am saying this because the sex ratio of different countries alongside the globe is very much striking to note that in Western countries, the female population in comparison to 1,000 males is, in the Russian Federation: 1,140; in Japan: 1,040; in USA: 1,029; and in Brazil: 1,025. But this ratio is different when we turn towards Asian countries. It is 1,004 in Indonesia, 983 in Bangladesh, 934 in China, 933in India and 944 in China. (Source: World Population Prospects, United Nations 1998-2000). The population of females in India is still diminishing and in comparison to 1,000 males the female population is 1901 972; in 1901, 962; in 1902, 955; in 1921, 955; in 1921, 950; in 1931, 945; in 1941, 946; in 195, 941; in 1961, 930; in 1971, 934; in 1981, 927; in 1991; and 933 in 2001 (Source: Census of India, 2001)

These facts confirm that sex-selective abortions are even more common than infanticides in India in particular and in all Asian countries in general. On February 28, 1994, John-Thor Dahlburg published an article entitled “Where Killing Baby Girls ‘Is No Big Sin’” in The Los Angeles Times, where the author notes that in Jaipur, capital of the western state of Rajasthan, prenatal sex determination tests result in an estimated 3,500 abortions of female fetuses annually. Most strikingly, according to UNICEF, “A report from Bombay in 1984 on abortions after prenatal sex determination stated that 7,999 out of 8,000 of the aborted fetuses were females.” Sex determination has become a lucrative business. The same tradition of infanticide and abandonment, especially of females, existed in China before the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 and now it has been increased as the government there enforced its ‘one-child policy’ since 1979 to control spiraling population growth. Each and every parent wants to see a male child.

And besides female body conception, if we take a look at the sexual status of women, the facts appear to be more alarming. Nobody asks a bride about her desire and wishes before marriage as arranged marriages are still considering shameful activities over chaste as pre marital sex and love are still shameful actions for a parent in India. Though the Supreme Court of India has supported individual rights and made it very clear that premarital sex and live-in relationships are not criminal offences, still these are confined as rare cases in metro cities in India and are not looked upon favourably.

I am unable to understand when two adult people want to live together, what is the offence? Without talking about morals, God, culture, custom, religion and traditions, can someone explain exactly why do we disapprove of such relationships? What more you add to the lives of two people, to whom we would force to adjust, adopt, and accommodate for the rest of their marital relationship? Is it not better in the long run to ‘try before you buy’ instead of two married adults living in constant pain, stress, and suffering? And divorce is also not recognised as a prestigious and general social norm in the case of Hindus or Catholic Christians, yet society accepts plural marriages (though illegal in the eyes of law in case of Hindus and Christians and legal in the case of Muslims) for males while plural marriage of a woman is still a reverie in any society.

In marital life in India and many other countries around the world, a woman has no sexual rights. She cannot express her desires and even she is not supposed to enjoy sex as it is told in the Hindu code that a wife is needed only for giving birth to a ‘male child.’ Expressing her own desire for sex or talking freely about orgasm to even one’s own husband may also be termed as a chasteless and debasing activity for a woman.

Though the Women and Child Development Ministry (WCD) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) have advised the government to amend the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the 1872 Indian Evidence Act to recognise new categories of sexual assault by redefining rape to include sexual assault (including domestic sexual assault) of any form in its definition, still, most married woman are facing such marital rapes in their daily lives.

But talk about these ‘dicey’ topics by a woman is considered vulgar. Also, nobody thinks it proper to ask a woman before subjecting her to the killing of her fetus yet now, in some parts of India, ‘honor killings’ are granted if a woman steps out of bounds—by choosing her own husband, by flirting in public, or by seeking divorce from an abusive partner—she has brought dishonor to her family. Yet all these matters are related to a woman’s body and still, that woman has no right to make any of her own decisions.

In summary, perspectives of sexuality in Asian and African countries are totally different than those of Western countries. The question of either supporting pornography or denying it remains baseless in those countries and the main question still remains unsolved as to whether a woman can be empowered to make her own decision about marriage, motherhood, parenthood, abortion, use of contraceptives, and expressing her will and rights for a sexual relationship.

What do you think?

Dr. Sarojini Sahoo’s blog is Sense & Sensuality

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