On the sexualisation and policing of the female body

Before I turned 13, I was already conscious of the differences between my body and that of my male counterparts and how mine could be sexualised without my consent. I remember sitting on the playground and feeling dirty because an older non-teaching staff had commented on my breasts, a comment that made me stiffen and withdraw into myself. At the time, I felt ashamed because I had attracted this adult’s comment, unknown to me that he was being inappropriate and predatory for sexualising a young girl barely of age.

That feeling of shame and guilt is one that many other women can surely attest to having felt at some point in their lives, particularly for those of us who grew up in religious African homes. In our society, women are taught to continually feel shame when we attract unwanted sexual attention. We are taught to belittle and shrink ourselves from the watchful eyes of dangerous men, and we are taught that purity is our virtue and anything that contradicts it is harmful. However well-intentioned we think we’re being, we are endlessly propagating the idea that we need to police women’s bodies to avoid tempting men in society, who are presumed to have no self-control when faced with women.

The female body is policed all our lives. Women are told what to wear or what to eat to remain desirable, how to carry our bodies and use them and all the way down to whether we reproduce any children or not. From a young age, many women are taught that their bodies are how we understand and define ourselves, and how the world sees us. My younger self all those years on the playground learnt that day that I was powerless against the gaze of those that should know and do better – yet public discourse has done little to progress past this harmful advice that being sexualised is within the woman’s control.

The idea that women are the protectors and flag-bearers of “virtue” and “morality” is the basis of the rape culture that we are working tirelessly to tackle today. When women are sexually assaulted or violated, we begin to question the victim, inappropriately inquiring into what they wore, how they looked, and why they were at the place the event occurred in the first place. This is a direct result of the failures of purity culture which teaches us that women ought to be inherently pure, as such when sex and gender-based violence occurs, the crux of the blame falls on the woman because she went outside the parameters of how society defines purity. It’s why archaic laws, such as women of the Armed Forces being prohibited from having children out of wedlock still exist, because the misogynistic ideals – from which these patriarchal rules that place the burden of the act of sexual intercourse solely on the woman’s body, were created – are still rife within society.

Men, on the other hand, are allowed to live without their bodies being subject to scrutiny and sexualisation by society, in fact, they are often the custodians of ensuring that women do not diverge from purity. Only a few months ago, there was outrage following the release of Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion’s sex-positive bop “WAP” with many men, both in the music industry and IRL, calling for both women to tone down their salacious desires. I found it disconcerting how Hip-hop/Rap, a genre known for promoting sex and sexualising women, now had to be toned down because women were the ones being explicit about their desires. For most women being confident in their sexuality is not the norm, this writer included. In fact, women who are raised or learn to be confident in their sexuality are often criticised by society for being different and ridiculed for their upbringing.

Another cause of viral commotion recently has been the weird reactions to Chloe Bailey’s confidence, and her carefree attitude on social media. Many men and women alike were riled up because Chloe, now 22, is growing into herself more, and sharing with her fans and listeners her newfound sense of self, which happens to enjoy kicking it back and throwing it in a circle. On Twitter, many began insulting and chiding the singer for defying the norm, some labelling her a “slut desperate for attention” within seconds of watching her videos. These shock tactics are nothing new, women throughout history, have been insulted for owning their bodies and choosing to exist outside the conventions of purity that society has laid down. It was not until Chloe opened up about her self-love journey in a tearful video that people realised they were bullying someone who was just coming into herself as an adult woman.

“And it’s really hard for me to think of myself as a sexual being or an attractive being quite frankly. So when I see all the uproar about my posts and stuff, I’m a bit confused. I really don’t understand because I’ve never seen myself in that way or in that light,” Chloe had said on the now-viral Instagram Live session with fans. But even if Chloe did see herself in that light, why is she not allowed to own her body autonomy the way that she deems fit to her. Why does body positivity have to be empowering for it to be deemed okay and why does it have to be a source of shame when women’s intentions are simply to be sexy? Even the recent vitriol over the Silouhette challenge is so uncalled for when women are just using these as a means of self-expression. Social media and technology have become such a huge part of our lives, especially in these unprecedented times where we are without physical social interaction. We are bound to want to show more of ourselves, especially as we find new ways to love our bodies and the outrage against another’s personal decisions with their body will never not be judgy and misplaced. As a society, we must question why we have so much disdain for any means of self-expression that contradicts our personal values.

Women who professionally work within the adult industry, either through channels such as the hugely successful OnlyFans, are also not immune from society’s moralistic gaze and are prone to the same levels of outrage, if not more, from the wider community for ‘exposing’ their bodies. Last year, when we spoke to African women who were learning to claim their sexual autonomy through sex work, we learnt that many women were being harassed by the men in their lives posing as paying and interested clients in order to harm them. It’s actually surprising that sex workers are expected to be discreet and ashamed about sex, even within their profession, because it has been deemed unserious and immoral, despite the fact that we as a society consume a lot of the content these artists produce.

Just recently, it was announced that the South African government would be charging users of Only Fans with value-added tax rates meaning that content creators will now have to pay 15 percent of all their earnings to the South African Revenue Services. While the process is currently underway, it is worth noting that Only Fans is a platform that became popular in the last year due to its free market for content creators to earn revenue, particularly sex workers who bypassed gatekeepers by sharing their content directly with consumers for a monthly subscription. Sex work itself still remains a criminal act in South Africa. In recent times, all efforts to have sex work viewed as important work in society fell on deaf ears, until now, that the government see another viable way to earn income off the backs of people only trying to make ends meet.

One of the most comforting things these days is that there is a community of women all unlearning these harmful puritanical ideologies that have been instilled in us from young; women finding and discovering what their bodies and sexuality means to them. These days, women across all industries are showing why it’s important to reclaim their image and inverting these harmful norms of male objectification for their benefit. As Megan memorably rapped on last year’s “BITCH”, women are past the days of appeasing to the male ego. With lyrics like, “But it’s 2020, I ain’t finna argue ’bout twerking,” she audaciously shows that we’re entering times where more people are reclaiming their body autonomy, without anyone’s permission. Anyone who thinks less at this point is intentionally choosing to disregard a woman’s autonomy and these types aren’t worth stoking the embers of this polarising discussion.

In 2021, I certainly don’t want to keep having the same old discussions about why a woman is comfortable showing her body online or in-person, so the next time you feel yourself tempted to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t do with her body, stop and ask yourself first: who get’s to decide how she feels about her body and why do her actions have to match up to your ideas of modesty?

Featured image credits/ColumbiaDaily


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