Women as Property: An Existential Challenge in Psychotherapy, Part 3
Women’s property status and its various manifestations, as described in the previous section of this article, range from the mundane to the extreme and contaminate the status of women in all walks of life.
In the home women do the bulk of the work. In the workplace they are paid less than men. Women may be considered less desirable employees and subjected to hostile workplace environments and sexual harassment. They may feel insecure in their jobs and thus susceptible to sexual exploitation by more powerful male superiors. Their opinions and suggestions may be denigrated or disregarded. Their contributions may be overlooked or appropriated by their male coworkers. Women may be inclined to accept these discrepancies because, as Professor Dayal described in the previous section, they feel vulnerable. Behind these discriminations lies the ultimate cause: they are considered chattel. If some women can be mutilated or enslaved or killed, or simply subordinated, all women live under this property shadow.
Advances in obstetrics and in neonatology have created a new property challenge: who owns the organs in a woman’s body; specifically, her uterus? Who can decide whether to retain a fetus that the woman, for whatever reason, does not want to gestate? In the name of religious conviction or moral imperative (intermediate causes) some would take away this ownership. The persistent effort to limit a woman’s control over her own body has successfully restricted the availability and legality of safe abortion.
Maintaining one’s property status is a costly burden. The quest for a more attractive body through Pilates, Zumba, spinning, dieting, facials, massages, although explained as the pursuit of health (the proximate cause), requires a serious commitment of money, time and energy. Expenditures for clothing, hair styling and makeup consume resources often justified as the need for youthful appearance (an intermediate cause) rather than for property value enhancement. A high fashion designer dress has the same function as an off-the-rack bargain, but wearing the former implies that the woman is a more valuable person. Fashionable clothing is often engineered to expose various portions of the woman’s body, as if she herself was a commodity used to create an attractive, more valuable image. Women may judge their self-worth by their body mass index, what color wax they daub on their lips or how many hundreds of dollars they pay for shoes that force them to walk on their toes. These activities benefit retailers and gyms and cosmetic companies and podiatrists, but at what cost to the women who use them?
Property status must be differentiated from courtship and sexual behavior. Women who enhance their appearance when seeking a mate or sexual partner are responding to different needs. For example, a woman wearing a revealing dress on a date may be looking for a sexual partner. The same woman wearing the dress to a business meeting might hope it raises her employee profile. Men may confuse the two, but the difference is usually clear to women themselves. A woman might react with indignation and even disbelief if told that her physical presentation signaled sexual availability when she intended only to be fashionable. Confusion about this difference can even lead to violence as when a rapist tries to excuse his crime with the defense that because of her physical presentation “she was asking for it.”
To illustrate this gap between female intention and male perception consider the following passage from James Siegel’s novel, Derailed. A man riding the train to work glances up from his newspaper and notices a woman’s body part across the aisle. He thinks:
A thigh taut, smooth and toned, a thigh that had obviously spent some time on the treadmill, sheathed by a fashionably short skirt made even shorter by the position of the legs. Casually crossed at the knees. All in all, a skirt length that he’d have to say fell somewhere between sexiness and sluttiness, not exactly one or the other, therefore both.
He looks at her bared thigh and assumes she’s a “sexy slut.” Never mind that the woman, when she dressed for work that morning, had no intention of presenting herself to the world as either sexy or slutty, or that she exercised in the gym (if that’s even true) to be healthy and fit, or that she chose her skirt in line with current fashion (which even he recognizes), this man, a stranger, perceives her as property. The woman has not invited this judgment. She made an appropriate and reasonable choice of clothing. In doing so, she has unwittingly and unintentionally offered herself as property because the males of her species are programmed to treat her that way.
Property status is a potent dynamic, a core constituent of human culture, a constant presence in women’s lives with insidious consequences. It is not a mere remnant of a bygone period of human history nor the aberrations of unfamiliar societies. It conveys a persistent attitude toward women even when that attitude is ignored, denied or misinterpreted. Because it represents an ultimate cause, its influence may be felt even if not recognized, in the same way gravity pulls the egg to the floor while all attention is focused on the startle reaction to a loud noise.
On February 6, 2018, the Associated Press reported that an Oregon State Senator defied calls to resign after an investigation confirmed he had groped numerous women, including two female fellow senators, on the grounds that his behavior was “instinctual.” He said, in other words: I’m simply behaving the way I’m biologically programmed. He considered his female peers not as people but as useful objects. Unlike the senator, men rarely cite this ultimate cause as explanation or justification, but its influence nevertheless permeates the culture.