Subject: Man. Object: Woman. Verb? Control.

The fight for reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom insists women are there for themselves—subjects in their own right whose needs and desires are expressions of their own unstoppable humanity.

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A Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota, in May 2019. (Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons)

As I listened to the arguments in the Mississippi abortion rights case on Dec. 1, a friend texted me to say, “God but they just hate us, don’t they?” And while hatred of women—what is often referred to as misogyny—is alive and well, it is undergirded by something else that is both less tangible and more terrifying. 

The late, great feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote about this as women’s “otherness” in a world of gender binaries and gendered power created by (and for) men. For Beauvoir, the core of sexism is this denial of women’s subjectivity: She is not self to herself but an object for male definition. 

In that sense, it is not simply or only “hatred” that motivates the sexists of the world, but the very desire to define and therefore to control. 

How else to explain young men at, say, frat parties wanting to have sex with (e.g. rape) women who are literally not present, passed out from too much alcohol. To do this—to want this—one first needs to imagine women as both object (not fully human) but also as there in the world primarily for you, a man.

And here, we can see how the attacks on reproductive rights are connected with the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment: the male expectation that women are there (exist) largely for their pleasure and use—be it use as sexual objects, wifely helpmates, motherly providers of care and comfort. Both sexual assault and the denial of reproductive bodily autonomy say to women: You are here for me.  Because if women are fully self-determined—can determine when and if they have children, when and with whom they have sex—then they cannot be there, fully, inevitably, without their own desire, for you. For a man. 

The fear of women’s autonomy and self-actualization—the desire for us not to call the shots on our own lives—is then less about some visceral hatred but about both dehumanization (Beauvoir’s “other”) and the wish to maintain a system where women are cultivated as objects for male use.

Both the fight for reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom (which includes freedom from sexual assault and harassment) are dependent upon inverting this ethos and insisting that women are there for themselves, subjects in their own right whose needs and desires are expressions of their own unstoppable humanity. 

Indeed, these men claim, they love women! They have even married one, raised one, been loving brother to one. But the deeper questions of power and control and agency provoke a harder conversation.

This is precisely why this analysis of gendered power is more difficult to take in and reckon with: Objectification and control are harder narratives for most people to stomach because they implicate all men in the project of patriarchy. When we invoke “misogyny” in the attempts to curtail reproductive freedom, many men of good faith will easily concur and just as easily claim that they, of course, do not in fact hate women. 

Indeed, these men claim, they love women! They have even married one, raised one, been loving brother to one. But the deeper questions of power and control and agency provoke a harder conversation that ignites more defensiveness, in part because this miasma of male prerogative permeates pretty much everything:  expectations of (heterosexual) family life and child care; sexual access and pleasure; workplace dynamics and equity; political regimes and institutional structures. 

Abortion rights inherently subvert the expectation that women are there to take care of men and to respond to male needs and desires (for love, for family, for power) as primary and their own needs and desires as secondary if at all relevant. Our bodies—and our agency and very subjectivity—are therefore imagined as actually ours, not temporarily or partially.  

Patriarchal power is not simply hate and violence, but insidious and deeply seated understandings of women as fundamentally existing for men.

This—the recognition that patriarchal power is not simply hate and violence, but insidious and deeply seated understandings of women as fundamentally existing for men—is a bitter pill for putatively feminist men to swallow. It is no accident that the first line of attack by men angry at feminist demands is to deem them dykes: women who dare to not be available for them but for other women.

Alas, while progressive men and the Democratic party are of course more inclined to support reproductive justice and assert women’s bodily autonomy, the very relegation of this to the realm of “culture wars” or even a discrete “issue” that people can somehow legitimately disagree on, reveals the discomfort with conceptualizing women as full human beings, as subjects whose very humanity is not up for debate.

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About

Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. She is the editor-in-chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.