by Kathryn K
[Content note: abuse, misogyny, gender essentialism; abortion]
The dehumanization of women happens in many ways in our culture. Women are dehumanized when they are depicted as sexual objects (or just objects) by the media. It occurs when our humanity, experiences, and reality are undermined and questioned; when traits like sensitivity and cooperation are labeled as female and constantly devalued.
In our world, women’s bodies are highly valued for their ability to give birth to children. Think about the “baby bump” watch in the tabloids and constant talk about women’s supposed ticking biological clocks. It is assumed all women want to become mothers; straight, married women are constantly asked when they will have kids and women who do not desire children are thought to be suspect or told that they will change their minds. Pregnant women’s bellies are often groped in public with or without their consent. Women are dehumanized when our bodies as public property and baby-producing amenities.
The ways that women’s bodies and health are legislated and politicized also dehumanize us. The fact alone that women’s health and reproductive rights are some kind of political bargaining chip and are sought to be controlled by laws restricting abortion and contraception shows the way that public interest in our bodies overrides our individual choices. If women were seen as equal to men, as full human beings, it would not be acceptable to debate our options when it comes to our health.
Many bills dehumanize women by saying that their lives are less important than the lives of their unborn fetuses. Legislation has been introduced in some states that would make abortion illegaleven if the life of the mother is at stake. Personhood amendments could even criminalize some miscarriages, making a very private event a public display. There have been so many attacks on women’s reproductive health in the past few years; these examples just barely scratch the surface.
The way that our society views women’s sexuality is a huge problem. Women are also often defined by whether or not they have sex, which reduces women to a virgin/whore dichotomy. If you’re wondering which choice society values more, think of the way women are insulted and verbally abused when they decide to have sex. Girls and women who are even perceived to have multiple sexual partners are called whores. A more well-known and obvious example is Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke, a woman advocating for free availability of birth control, “slut” and a “prostitute,”. These are all gendered slurs that tell women we should not be having sex for pleasure, because our bodies are meant to be baby-making machines.
This dehumanization can easily lead to sexual and domestic violence again women. A batterer uses these same gendered insults in order to maintain power and control his partner. All men (and women) who undermine women’s bodily autonomy and define women by their sexual activity are exercising the same control. An abuser sees women as less than and sees violence against them as being acceptable, inevitable or deserving. A rapist may excuse his behavior by bringing up a woman’s reputation as a “slut” or a “whore.” Someone may find the idea of raping a woman disgusting, but having sex with a woman labeled as a slut against her will is acceptable.
The way we dehumanize women causes more than interpersonal violence. It delegitimizes violence against women and makes us less sensitive when it does happen in our communities as a whole. We cannot allow ourselves to collude with batterers and rapists by not giving women full bodily autonomy. Women are more than virgins or whore, and more than our ability to birth a child. When we begin to see women as real people with their own lives, experiences, interests, and desires violence against us will become much less likely.