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Rape and Women’s Disempowerment

The greatest power that someone can have is autonomy or the right to freely choice for oneself, especially in regards to one’s sexuality, but this power is not always equally given to men and women. In the 1980s women were not given the proper tools to excerise their sexual autonomy and thereby had difficulties overcoming sexual dicrimiantion, resisting the physical power of male sexuality, and having their sexuality protected and respected. The ideas prevalent at the time privileged a man’s sexuality and denied a woman’s right to refuse it as seen in the widespread rape culture. Controversial policies were developed that failed to address sexual assault, blamed victims of rape, and normalized male violence towards women. This could easily be seen in courtrooms as rules were applied differently in rape cases than in other crimes to make it more difficult to prove that a rape occurred, as emphasized by Estrich in Sex and Power. The courts could look at a woman’s track record but a man’s sexual history was not allowed to be talked about in order accuse him of rape. Also the definition of force or force of threat and the line between consensual and nonconsensual sex were not clear under the law and this created a lot of problems in the rape cases. Estrich explains that in many cases during the 1980s, most men said that they wanted to have consensual sex with a woman but for some reason it was interpreted as rape. This did not happen on the account of some reason unknown to them but it happened because they blurred the lines by ignoring a woman’s power to say no and disrespecting her instructions. This is strongly connected to idea that a woman’s voice still was not as important as a man’s at the time. A woman in the courtroom could not be trusted because she could lie to a jury in order to lock away an innocent man for a crime he did not commit. Fear then spread throughout the judicial system and this allowed legislators to pass less strict rape legislation to prevent women from gaining too powerful of a voice to that may harm men. The idea that women would lie about being raped is absolutely ridiculous because it was more likely that men would lie about not being rapists and they were thereby the greater threat to the preservation to the perfect and untainted judicial system. This social construction also allowed a man to have sex whenever and however he wanted because he would not be punished for it. This took away a woman’s sexual autonomy because it gave her no power to refuse any man. A woman’s sexual independence and desires were often not seen as “she defined it, but as he (the man) perceived it” (Estrich 176). A culture developed on these ideas resulted in the abuse of women’s sexuality and denied all male responsibility in it. A lack of sexual autonomy leads to a dystopia for women’s sexualty because it creates a complete loss of female power and control over her own body.

Atwood ties many ideas of rape and sexual assault in her novel to shed light on the abuses of female sexuality in the 1980s. The handmaids are isolated to exclusively sexual duties and their bodies are defiled when they are raped all for the sake of bringing new life into the world, even if it destroys the very lives of the women who experience it. Instead of being praised as heroes and saviors bringing salvation to the world the women are seen as disgraceful, shameful, and dishonorable for their position. The handmaids are forced to wear red uniforms as a “sign of their sinful condition” but this sin is not of their own doing but forced upon them (Slonczewski). Atwood does this to show how rape victims in the 1980s were also blamed for what happened to them either because they were asking for it, they were too weak to manage themselves, or they had nothing to complain about because they only thought they were raped. For rape victims to be blamed for their own sexual abuse is disgusting and senseless to us but when looking at cultures that truly believed these ideas it can be understood how they could have been thought of as true because they always treated women this horribly. The most elaborate ideas of rape seen throughout the novel are in the celebrations of the Ceremony and the Particicution. When the people participating in the Ceremony are having sex it is not within a loving relationship between a handmaid, Commander, and wife but is actually a celebrated form of rape. The handmaids are first kidnapped and forced to become sex slaves by the Aunts, they are then physically held down by the wives during sex, and they are finally penetrated by the unwanted males. This act is not consensual by any means and should have been abhorred as a disgusting crime but it is instead hailed as a religious, social, and evolutionary necessity. This shows an extreme form of what the rape culture of the 1980s represented. Ideas of rape are further examined in the Particicution, which is the execution of rapists in Gilead by the handmaids themselves. In the town square, the handmaids are encouraged to gather to rip suspected rapists limb from limb in a torturous and perturbed form of punishment as seen in the video clip. Gilead seems to crack down on the prosecution and punishment of rapists, the one thing that maybe the government does right, but in reality it also has deep foundations in rape and sexual assault. The government is actually only concerned with the type of man who is allowed to rape instead of the actual female victims. Only men of status and authority are allowed to sexually abuse women while men of lower class and power are forbidden. Gilead justifies severe punishment for rapists who are not at the top of the social ladder but praises those who are. Much like in the courtrooms of the 1980s, high and mighty men of wealth and status are never punished for rape because they have of the power of their voices above everyone else’s. The themes of rape and sexual abuse in “The Handmaid’s Tale” shows the extent of the horrors experienced by women in the 1980s in regards to their sexuality.

The relationship between sex and power shows how the sexual abuse of the female body, whether it be through childbirth or rape, creates a dystopia for women. Power in Gilead is directly connected to the sex roles of men and women that gives men all the control int the relationship. In the new Gilead the “women are socially powerless in respect to the very reproductive capacities that might make them powerful” because the ruling males of the regime so powerfully and strongly control them (Eisenstein 237). Fertile women should have been given a power and significance over all infertile members of society but, because males already had so much authority, the women never had the chance to become powerful. Once bound by the shackles of their positions, the handmaids lost all power and could not even run away without being threatened by the government. Any handmaids that resisted her position would be immediately executed or banished to the colonies. The greatest control over women was seen in “those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (Atwood 67). The women were not only forbidden from killing themselves but given absolutely zero opportunities to attempt suicide as their rooms were detailed with extensive preventative measures and they were always being watched. This extreme control over their choice to live or die emphasizes their complete lack of power, freedom, and independence. The women are forced into their duties with absolutely no emotional or physical escape but must accept to their inability to change their situation. Atwood warns us of the effects that giving all power to one sex could have while also shedding light on the potential of men in power to one day control women to this extent given the continuation of their status even during the twentieth century.

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Childbearing: A Loss of Identity for Women

Since women are the only individuals with the ability to give birth their biology has often led their culture to isolate them to specific roles and identities. The traditional patriarchies that have continually shaped most families, cultures, governments, and nations have made a woman’s first and foremost identity a mother while allowing men to take on the fathering role as secondary. This idea is rooted in cultural values rather than biology because, “there is no reason to assume that women would be more family orientated than men,” and there is no need to isolate women and not men to the family (Estrich 94). In the 1980s, however, women still were valued for their bodies over their minds and personalities while men were praised for their contributions outside of their physicality. Even though the women’s rights movement was sparked in the early twentieth century, many cultural values and political inequalities continued to influence the identification of women throughout the world. It was commonly held that women were meant to be mothers and they were dishonoring their gender if they chose otherwise. In the video clip, one of the Aunts scolds women who chose not to bear children and stigmatizes them as whores and sluts. It did not matter if a woman did not want to have a child because it was supposed to be her female duty to give birth. Many women in the 1980s felt like they did not have any choice besides motherhood because of the social, political, and economic restraints placed on them. Women were then forced into these roles but it was a lose-lose situation because when they took on their unwilling roles as mothers they were isolated as childbearing agents and lost all control over their bodies but if they they chose not to be mothers then they were condemned and criticized. Any culture or society that isolates and subjugates people against their own will creates a loss of identity and a loss of control amongst individuals that creates a severe dystopia for all (Johnson and Stillman). The worst problem is that women often do seem to have no other choice because they will always be needed as child bearers but to achieve true justice “in a sexually egalitarian society a woman should be both equal and free to say that her (individual) capacity for childbearing should not determine her social, political and economic options” (Eisenstein 236). Women should not have to be isolated or subjugated but should be given a voice to act against these restraints. Childbirth is well known to provide women with value, responsibility, and worth but if this is the only outlet that a woman is allowed to experience then she will lead a very empty and unfulfilled life. If women are not allowed to explore other parts of the world that will allow them to mentally, emotionally, and physically grow, challenge, and find themselves then they will not be able to live. In a culture where a woman’s ability to give birth is her most significant contribution, women  will fail to become passionate, driven, and fervent individuals. These societies will instead uphold values of female compliancy, silence, and insignificance because they provide women with no choice or control over their identity. Any society that confines women exclusively to childbearing roles will create a severe loss of female identity and thereby a dystopia for female sexuality.

It is pretty obvious throughout “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the women in Gilead who are classified as fertile are exclusively isolated to child bearing roles and forbidden to identify themselves as anything other than handmaids. The handmaids are seen as valuable and useful only for their viable ovaries and fertile wombs not for who they are outside of their biology. In the clip one of the women states that the only reason she was not banished was because “her ovaries are still jumping.” In the process of becoming a handmaid the women are first stripped of their old identited and renamed as possessions of the Commanders who control them. On each reassignment a handmaid is renamed according to the new man she serves and her birth name is never used or revealed. Offred explains how this works when she tells the story of how one day her partner “simply wasn’t there anymore, and this (new handmaid) was there in her place” with the same given name as the previous woman, showing just how easily replaceable the women’s identities were (Atwood 302). The women are also stripped of their identities in that they are not allowed to express their individuality by reading, writing, or even voicing their opinions. The narrative follows along the memoirs of Offred but she often struggles because she “has nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden” (Atwood 214). Offred usually resorts to story telling internally and talking to herself in hopes of one day being able to share her story to someone who will acknowledge her. The handmaids are also barred from expressing themselves to others through social interaction as they are forbidden from contacting or finding people from their past and engaging in real conversations with people from their present. Offred often clings to her identity through her memories of the pre-Gilead world but after living under the instruction of the Aunts and the service of three Commanders she begins to forget and lose touch with who she used to be. She stops constantly thinking and worrying about her old family, she begins to accept her position as a handmaids and becomes less resistant to its duties, and she gives in to the desires and power of her Commander. After only being able to identify herself as a handmaid for so long she begins to see herself only as a child bearer and a vessel for conception, losing whatever purpose she used to serve in the world. Atwood shows that when women are isolated to becoming only child bearers and excluded from participation in the rest of society, then women will lead unfulfilled lives with no true sense of who they are.

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Gilead as a Dystopia for Women’s Sexuality

Margaret Atwood imagined and created a new world to expose the horrors experienced by women in regards to their sexuality during the 1980s. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian state formed by a religious cult centered on ideas of intolerance and inequality, especially in relation to gender. This world experienced mass infertility and a decline in birth rate due to severe pollution and the widespread of sexually transmitted diseases. In order to right these wrongs, the new figures of power decided that an extreme form of control over women was necessary, because of course that will solve all the world’s problems right? At first women were stripped of their properties, jobs, money, and voices and soon enough they lost all rights over their identities and bodies. The true prupose of women was transformed as they were meant to act solely childbearing agents to be impregnated by powerful males and birth their children, overturning the declining birthrate and bringing the world back to its fruitful and happy place. This was enforced by the setting up a stratified class and gender system that divided women according to their fertility. Ketterer notes that in Gilead, “women with viable ovaries become ‘two legged wombs’” called handmaids, “post menopausal, unmarried, sterile women” become Aunts who indoctrinate the handmaids in preparation for male assignment, infertile able young women become servants called Marthas, and lastly “women who could not or would not belong to either of these groups and who were not hanged as subversive criminals” become Unwomen, discarded from society like trash. Every role is based around the value and worth of women’s sexuality and the female body as seen by men. The main character of the novel, Offred, a handmaid, explains that before she became part of Gilead she viewed her body as “an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of (her) will” but she was changed into “a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear,” her womb (Atwood 136). The handmaids are seen as physical objects with no power over their bodies and are expected to sacrifice their lives in order to procreate. They are pigeonholed into becoming mothers, sources of fertility, and fruitful wombs, roles all focused on their physicality over their personality. When women are valued only for their bodies, they lose all power and identity but this allows them to be more easily controlled because they lack social influences. The exploitation of female sexuality for the empowerment of men creates a dystopia for all women and this is seen in Gilead as women are not appreciated for both their biological and social significance. The oppression and subjugation of women’s sexuality in “The Handmaid’s Tale” focus on the possible realities for women in cultures that isolate women as mothering agents and sexual pawns.

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The Female Body: An Agent for Exploitation

The main way that men and women are treated differently in the world is because of their human sexuality. Every person’s role in sex greatly influences his or her position in society. A woman’s body can be viewed as biologically superior as a result of her sexuality, for example, because it has the ability to bear children where a male’s cannot. This ability is extremely important because if women did not give birth then there would be no future generations and thereby no future for the world. This appears to give women an assurance and confidence in their body because they are given a crucial role. Males, not females, however, have long dominated in leadership positions and this fact continued into the 1980s America as well. If males are in power then any sense of empowerment for females can be seen as a threat to male authority and if childbirth gives women a great power then this appears to make men weak and God forbid men appear weaker than women. Leading males, therefore, compensated for their inability by exploiting the female capacity to give birth for their own personal and sexual gain. Eisenstein explains that it is in this way that a culture has more influence in defining a woman than biology does because if members of a society choose to determine and control a woman’s destiny then it is that control that shapes what it means to be a woman. Men believed that if women were isolated as only child bearers and not given the ability to explore other options, then they could be more easily manipulated and their potential for power would be stifled. These attempts to control women’s sexuality and the female body were seen through cases of arranged marriage, sexual assault, human trafficking, slavery, and rape. The issue of rape in the 1980s was a key way in which men attempted to control the female body other than just isolating them to childbearing roles. Because rape victims are valued only for their bodies and viewed only as sexual pawns, these women experience extreme forms of physical, psychological, and sociological distress after they are abused. Rape cases also often lead to situations of unwanted pregnancy where women are forced into childbearing roles because of their fertile rather than maternal ability. The abundance of rape cases in the 1980s did not shed light on these horrors but instead allowed for a continued oppression of women as those who fell victim to rape were ignored and silenced. The isolation of women as child bearers and the abuse of women through rape both allow for the continuation of male power through the exploitation of women to create them as solely biological agents of their society. The abuses of childbirth and rape created an extreme dystopia for women in the 1980s as they transformed a woman’s biology and sexuality from a gift to a burden.

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Atwood’s Sexual Dystopia for Women

What happens in a world where women are valued only for their bodies? A tyrannical and authoritarian society is created that destroys all the power, independence, and control women have over their lives by forcing them into an unending cycle of sexual assault. Not really, but it could happen according to Margaret Atwood. Even though this seems a tad extreme, especially after the great leaps women made during the twentieth century, Atwood saw it as a possible reality with the way women were treated in the world. After becoming fed up with the unending sexual dystopia for women in the 1980s, Atwood decided to take a stand against sexual inequality and discrimination by writing her novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The most significant issues of the time were centered on the social identity and political power of women in the real world. The widespread expectation of women to become moms and the severe lack of regulation over rape cases during the 1980s inspired Atwood to construct a world where injustices of these two issues would be exposed. She believed that the isolation of women as mothers caused women to lose a sense of identity and the exploitation of the female body through rape caused women to lose a sense of power. Anyone who doesn’t loses both their identity and sense of power cannot live a fulfilling and meaningful life and Atwood shows how this becomes a harsh reality when women are subject to sexual abuse. handmaids-tale