When I was in college, I attended a lecture by Eleanor Smeal, feminist icon, former president of the National Organization for Women and founder of the Feminist Majority.
I was swept up in “women’s issues” at the time. I marched with my classmates in an annual Take Back the Night event, protesting violence against women. I took women’s studies classes, lots of them — enough to make the course of study my second major.
When men challenged me on my beliefs, I frequently responded with phrases like, “You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a woman.”
But as I watched Smeal describe the plight of the modern female with what seemed like disdain for her biological condition, a twinge of doubt emerged within me and began to spread. I couldn’t help but feel that she didn’t like me, or herself, or women at all, really.
Indeed, much of what we generally refer to as “women’s issues” today is cloaked in a subtle but insidious strain of female self-loathing. Women are bombarded with the message that they are the woebegone victims of biology, history and culture. The path to freedom is marked by being less like women and more like men.
We see this theme throughout our culture, but it is most conspicuous in campaigns to encourage female sexual license, which we now euphemistically refer to as “reproductive rights.” This concept is predicated on the belief that only in an environment where the consequences of sexual activity are identical between the genders, will women be truly free and equal.
The problem for women, despite the insistence of some on the left, is that the risks of “sexual freedom” will never be identical to those of their male counterparts, precisely because, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, men can take “advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished.”
In other words, our societal sea change in sexual attitudes may actually contradict human nature, at great detriment to women.
A study by University of Texas sociologist and researcher Mark Regnerus found that “striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex” and that they engage in it not because of their own personal, biological desires but because of powerful cultural influences.
Contraception and abortion often exacerbate this problem; while each may prevent certain consequences for women, the emotional and psychological risks are far more complex but no less serious.
An in-depth look at the hook-up culture in university life by The Times last year reinforces the notions that even among women of divergent backgrounds, the pressure to adopt the sexual preferences of men over their own is a powerful driver of their behavior.
In the changing sexual marketplace, women increasingly accept the male preference for casual flings over monogamous relationships because they have run out of choices.
As one student put it, in a dating paradigm where men have the control, women “stop expecting that they’re going to get a boyfriend.” Instead, they just give in and conform to men’s desires, often eschewing their own natural tendencies.
In an effort to gain power through sexual liberation, many women find themselves less liberated and more confined to behaving in a certain way, as they are pressured to deny their nature in the same contemptuous manner modeled by many feminist leaders.
The danger here is that (usually progressive) public policies claiming to empower women may in fact have a damaging effect by normalizing behavior that, absent outside pressure, women may not ordinarily engage in.
Further, the unrelenting political push for “reproductive rights” all but ensures that men will relinquish more and more sexual responsibility. There is no need for them to attend to something that is a “women’s issue.”
So-called reproductive rights will be a frequently used and highly charged political weapon in the coming elections, as it was during the 2012 cycle, when Democrats successfully portrayed their opponents as purveyors of a “war on women.”
But the war on women has far more insidious roots than most progressives will ever acknowledge, and the next generation of females are the ones who will suffer.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
2014 Fort Worth Star-Telegram