Tools of the Patriarchy: The Weaponization of Sexual Freedom

Tools of the Patriarchy is a column on the tools that establish men’s dominance in society, or, in other words, uphold the patriarchy. Whether or not these tools are used intentionally, they contribute to a world in which women are not equal to men.

Many of methods of patriarchal control come from inflicting shame—and when it comes to women’s sexual choices and histories, shame is the name of the game. (Wikipedia + Screenshot from YouTube)

The morning after a sexual encounter, a woman’s journey home is frequently deemed a “walk of shame“—while men, on the other hand, get to enjoy of a “walk of pride.”

Patriarchal norms, as we’ve discussed in past weeks, most often include attempting to control women. Many of methods of control come from inflicting shame—and when it comes to women’s sexual choices and histories, shame is the name of the game.

The History of Sexual Freedom and Feminism

Sexual freedom has meant many things for feminists in the past, and discussions of sexual freedom today often look very different than they did thirty years ago.

The Guardian’s Van Badham puts it well:

“The restrictions placed on female agency [in the 60s and 70s]—especially through the institution of marriage, which women entered younger and were less enfranchised to leave than now—are staggering to imagine … Britain did not make marital rape illegal until 1991.

“For feminists who survived those generations, it must seem extraordinary to have battled at such risk for liberation to hear younger women discuss sexual contracts, a desire for boundaries, a wish not to be sexualised by men in their lives. Given the emergence of their generation from socially-enforced cocoons of sexual repression, where actual laws existed to culturally erase women’s sexuality, it must look like regress to older women.

“But what has happened in the intervening decades is that sexual freedom has become another realm of women’s experience for patriarchy to conquer. As soon as older feminists had won sexual liberation, patriarchy reframed it as sexual availability for men.”

Our feminist foremothers fought for women to have sexual freedom and agency—causing an increase in women’s sexuality and sexual freedom, developing prominently in the 1920s.

But, as goes the fate for many feminist victories, patriarchal society was able to warp sexual freedom for women into sexual accessibility for men—without regard to consent.

This raises some confusing questions: Could women who are publicly, “loudly” sexual be contributing to patriarchal oppression? Or just the opposite: Are women who prefer to not have sex or not be publicly sexual giving in to patriarchal pressures?

Nona Willis Aronowitz, an opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote an article in 2018 about her own confusion on the subject. She writes:

“Was pornography a vanguard of sexual freedom or a tool of the patriarchy? Caught in a dizzying tangle of opinions from Second Wave feminist writers, many of whom were deeply ambivalent about the fruits of the sexual revolution, I sought guidance from my mother, the journalist and critic Ellen Willis …

“She enlightened me to a strain of early radical feminism that would forever change my thinking on the importance of pleasure politics. Both pornography and men could be misogynistic and predatory, she told me. But they weren’t the causes so much as the symptoms of a sexist society. And the answer wasn’t sexual repression. Women’s liberation should not be ‘about fending off men’s sexuality,’ she said, ‘but being able to embrace your own.'”

In the words of Aronowitz’s mother, nuance is key when it comes to sexual empowerment.

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Slut Shaming

Slut shaming is uniquely a women’s issue, and words that exist to describe someone “too sexual” are pointedly women-specific.

In fact, for men, a common term is “man-whore” or “man-slut”—implying the word is inherently for women. (Hence the lack of a need for the word “woman-whore.”)

And even in the situations where these words are used for men, societal implications are rarely as harmful as they are for women. A “walk of shame” is rarely applied to men—for many, returning home from a sexual encounter is praised and lauded.

And as with most feminist issues, women of color and financially poorer women often face worse accusations of sluttiness.

An Atlantic article from May 2014 explored the ways college-aged women slut shame other women, and the differences between wealthy and poor women doing so. It cited a study from 2004 that found slut shaming is frequently used between women—and often between richer and poorer groups of women—and “sluttiness” often has different definitions for women of different socio-economic backgrounds.

Once again, this tool of the patriarchy is so successful in part because women use it against each other.

Ms. author Ashley Jordan explored the issue in her article about the sexist and racist backlash against this year’s Super Bowl. She writes:

“The half-naked history of Super Bowl performers makes the elicit outrage over JLo’s and Shakira’s ‘bared necessities’ seem more suspect. Latinas may be particularly vulnerable to hypersexualized social perceptions due to the fact that they are routinely depicted as overtly sexual by American media. The cultural refusal to see Latin women beyond narrow, limited representations of domestic workers and sultry, seductive, heteronormative, sex kittens may begin to explain why Shakira and JLo might be more severely scrutinized for performing sexuality. …

Despite existing in a culture that sexualizes women so often it almost feels like a professional sport of its own, women on a sports mega-stage, claiming their sexuality for themselves, are met with the kind of shock, scorn, and condemnation conspicuously absent from other routine, patriarchal portrayals of women.”

A more recent example is conservative media’s backlash against Cardi B’s sex-positive new single, “WAP,” featuring rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

Their ode to female pleasure has sparked bad-faith outrage from conservative media—from pundit, Ben Shapiro; to James P. Bradley, a Republican congressional candidate from California; and DeAnna Lorraine, a recently unsuccessful candidate in a Republican primary election in California.


“This is what feminists fought for,” Shapiro mocked.

Even in situations where women may feel empowered to reclaim their sexuality and be publicly, confidently sexual, society—and men in particular—fall back on the most commonly used tool in upholding patriarchal ways: inflicting shame. 

Luckily, powerful women like Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, or Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, are unlikely to collapse professionally or personally due to heckles over the amount of ass they show or their outward joy of sex.

In fact, quite the opposite: On Wednesday, “WAP” became the number one song on Global Spotify—the first all-female rap collaboration in history to achieve this. And after Shakira performed “Whenever, Wherever” during February’s Super Bowl, it hit number one on iTunes—20 years after the song’s initial release.

Slutwalk 2013 in Seattle. (Studio5Graphics / Flickr)

Another form of anti-slut-shaming comes in the form of “slut walks,” which emerged in early 2011 as a form of feminist protest after a police officer thoughtlessly remarked that women “should stop dressing like sluts” if they did not want to be sexually assaulted or raped. The marches are an attempt to take back the word “slut.”

In a 2011 Washington Post article titled, “Slut walks and the future of feminism,” Jessica Valenti writes:

“SlutWalks have cropped up organically, in city after city, fueled by the raw emotional and political energy of young women. And that’s the real reason SlutWalks have struck me as the future of feminism. Not because an entire generation of women will organize under the word ‘slut’ or because these marches will completely eradicate the damaging tendency of law enforcement and the media to blame sexual assault victims (though I think they’ll certainly put a dent in it). But the success of SlutWalks does herald a new day in feminist organizing. …

The SlutWalkers, in outfits that could be grumpily labeled ‘ridiculous and indecent,’ are not inducing exclusion from respectable society. They’re generating excitement, translating their anger into action and trying to change our supposedly respectable society into one that truly respects men, women and yes, even ‘sluts.’”

Amber Rose and other celebrities have fought against culturally acceptable slut-shaming. Among many others, Rose organized and participated in the 2015 SlutWalk in Los Angeles—which Ms. described as “not your mother’s anti-rape protest.”

“Slut pride” is a growing movement that empowers women to be fully and “loudly” sexual— and is hammering home the point that dressing or acting this way is never the same thing as consent.

Prude Shaming

Slut shaming is by no means a solved issue—no matter how successful SlutWalks have been in the past—but it is far more prevalent in discussions of sexual empowerment.

One less discussed is the issue of prude shaming—the act of shaming women for having too little sex, or not being sufficiently sexually available for men.

Cristen Conger, founder and former co-host of podcast “Stuff Mom Never Told You,” makes a crucial point about prude shaming:

“It’s all inextricably linked to slut-shaming. The very reason that we have the idea of sluts is that we have the idea of virgins and prudes … It’s all judging people, usually, more so women, based on the sexual decisions that they do or don’t make.”

The issue in both slut and prude shaming is the unacceptable widespread feeling of entitlement to know about women’s sexual endeavor, and a similar entitlement to judge women based on who, when, how often and why they choose or choose not to have sex.

How About We Just Stop Discussing Women’s Sexual Histories?

When it comes to how society views women’s sexual choices, there seems to be no happy medium; any level of sexuality or lack thereof is regarded as shameful, in one way or another. And the fact remains: Either way, you are publicizing a woman’s sexual past and exposing that past (and ultimately that woman) to stand in judgement. 

Men, of course, face their own social pressures and issues when it comes to sex and sexual history—but women face considerably more. There is a societal obsession with a woman’s sexual past, present and what those pasts and presents mean for the future.

If we don’t have sex, we’re weird. If we have too much sex, we are gross.

The broader conversation refuses to turn away from the topic and cannot seem to agree on which is better: a slut or a prude. So, we’d like to suggest a fool-proof solution:

Stop talking about it at all.

Slut shaming, hair shaming, fat shaming—the theme drawing together nearly every tool of the patriarchy is the social acceptability of shaming women for not fitting an unachievable ideal.

In all of these cases, a women’s right to choose what she wants to do to or with her own body is stolen from her, and offered up to the general public to dissect at will.

The concept of women’s sexual freedom has changed and will continue to evolve over the years, and it is important to acknowledge that truth. But regardless of what side of the line you stand on, ending the idea that women’s sexual histories are up for discussion and judgement is a great place to start.

Feminists, thankfully and unsurprisingly, are getting quite good at calling out this oh-so-subtle system of oppression—and we will continue to break this ideal down until it is a thing of the past.

About and

Gavi Klein is a senior at Brandeis University majoring in American studies with minors in Italian studies and journalism. She is a contributor at Ms.
Audrey Gibbs is a junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, majoring in English with minors in Shakespeare studies and politics. She hopes to continue her education through law or journalism school. In her free time, she is a singer/songwriter and an actress.