Here are some things which even the most reactionary branches of the news media might set within the broader context of a sexist culture:
- the under-representation of women in politics
- female genital mutilation
- sexual objectification and harassment
And here is one thing which they don’t:
- the imprisonment, rape and fertility control of women by men who decide they can “own” them
The first three things are misogyny in action; the latter is just pure evil, badness, whatever you want to call it, providing you don’t use words like “sexist” and “patriarchal”, because that just wouldn’t be playing fair.
When it comes to extreme examples of oppression behind closed doors, there appears to be an unwritten rule along the lines of “whatever you do, don’t ever associate it with ‘normal’ misogyny in the outside world”. This might be the same world in which oppressors justify their own actions, but as long as they keep their dungeons underground it’s not as though there’s any real link with broader cultural trends. Hence in today’s Guardian article on the Ohio kidnappings entitled What makes men take women and children prisoner? there’s no mention of cultural messages which tell us that women’s bodies aren’t their own to begin with. This isn’t to excuse the actions of someone such as Ariel Castro, but if we are in the business of pontificating about his motives – if we think it our right to mull over whether he or not he was abused as a child, or to make blindingly obvious statements about a “sense of warped morality” – then we ought to consider gender politics. Merely stating in passing that those who imprison are “almost always men” just isn’t enough.
At times this isn’t something even feminists will want to raise. I suspect this is less to do with fundamental differences of opinion and more to do with disagreements over the best way of operating as a feminist within an anti-feminist culture. However much you might want to, you know that saying “what about the sexism?” will appear exploitative to some. You’ll be told you’re using a one-off tragedy to promote your own agenda (as if having an agenda were a bad thing!). Or you’ll be accused of tarring all men with the “evil” brush. But the fact is these are not one-off events as much as we’d like to believe – and we only know of the prisoners who escaped. And any man who genuinely believes women should own their own bodies would surely want to examine the implications of this in full. It is not a given that a woman will be perceived to “own herself” in the same way that a man will. Both rape culture and a lack of reproductive choices form part of the backdrop in which some men think women and girls are literally there for the taking, their bodies and fertility available to control at will.
The news that Ariel Castro could in theory face the death penalty, not for his sustained abuse of three women, but for the “unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy” seems in this context relevant. In the state of Ohio this counts as aggravated murder, hence a crime in which the main victim is not the formerly pregnant woman but the fetus she was carrying. While for some there will be an attraction in applying the death penalty opportunistically, it seems to me that dehumanizing laws such as these form part of the culture of ownership under which all women live, whether or not they can bear children and whether or not they are literally locked up. Certainly, if we can’t do better than this, it’s worth arguing the toss over who should have most say over a woman’s body – and I’d rather it was the state of Ohio than Ariel Castro – but surely it doesn’t have to be like this?
It’s not that we simply don’t want to talk about cases of long-term imprisonment and sexual abuse. If anything, we talk about them too much. We are neither overly-considerate nor squeamish. If it is considered okay for Mock The Week panellists to giggle, in a faux-sheepish manner, over the actions of Josef Fritzl, it should be more than okay for the mainstream media to engage with what these cases say about attitudes to women – and to pick apart which elements are pure aberration, and those which are merely an exaggerated version of widely held beliefs. It ought to be reasonable for us to examine ourselves in the light of what appears extreme. If not, what are we doing other than wallowing in someone else’s horror?