Feminine Pollution and Male Social Control

03 Apr

Disclaimer: I am not here trying to express my own views about women and men. I am merely trying to explain my thoughts on how the American ideologies about the two sexes and genders work.

As many of you know, one of the subjects I study at university is Sociology (the other being History). As I was using the restroom today, something got me thinking about the gendered division of restrooms. In my personal experience, it has been acceptable for women to enter men’s bathrooms, but unacceptable for the opposite to occur. If a woman goes into a man’s bathroom, she is admired and her courage applauded. If a man goes into a woman’s bathroom, he is shamed by most of society, save for those with the attitudes of college frat brothers, and is considered a voyeur. Part of this difference, I think, has to do with the sexualization of women in Western society, but part of it also has to do with the nature of the social spheres of men and women, and their characteristics.

The sociologist Barrie Thorne studied gender socialization in children (her book Gender Play is fascinating, if you ever get the chance to read it). One of the things Thorne comments on in her book is the role of “pollution rituals” such as cooties in forming an image of women as the ultimate source of contamination. This narrative is evident in narratives such as the concept of original sin and the Garden of Eden, as well, with woman being responsible for humanity’s downfall. Pollution rituals in childhood, however, reinforce this social idea of women as contaminating, somehow, and with this comes the idea that those things associated with women – the feminine – are also contaminated.

It is, in many parts of Western society, more socially acceptable for girls to act like boys than the reverse. This is interesting, because Western society is patriarchal, and men have significantly more power than women, though they try to deny it. If society is patriarchal, one would think that it would be most logical to exclude women from the world of men, in order that men can maintain their hegemony. Yet, as mentioned above, when women break through into the world of men, they are often accepted and sometimes admired and applauded, especially where sports are concerned (one realm this is not true in is politics; look at the treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primaries). When men enter the world of women, however, they are shamed and made into social outcasts.

One example of this is gay men. Conceptions of sexuality are very closely tied to conceptions of gender in this society, and males are expected to be extremely heterosexual. Gay men are subjected to more derision and scorn in society (think of all the “buttsex” jokes and the use of threatening one’s sexuality as a means of social control among men in schools) than lesbian women are. By being attracted to other men, gay men step into the world of Western women, leaving the male sphere, and are subjected to scorn because of it. When women are attracted to other women, they step into the man’s sphere, and are not subjected to as much scorn and derision (this is not to say that the experience of lesbians is insignificant at all; they are still subjected to a lot of bigotry and hatred). It is more socially acceptable to be lesbian than to be gay. Why? Part of this, I think, again comes back to the sexualization of women in society, and part of the limited acceptances of lesbianism is a voyeuristic one; men like to think about women having sex, because women’s bodies have become more sexualized than men’s. Additionally, power comes into it: women are not seen as a threat, and so their deviance is deemed as slightly more “acceptable.”

So, then, why is it more acceptable for women to step into men’s worlds than the opposite? Is it solely because women are not seen as threatening male hegemony due to cultural notions of their relative weakness? No. I think another major aspect of it is that male hegemony is more worried about keeping its own in line than being worried about women stepping their world. As I said, women are not considered a “threat” to male hegemony, but males becoming more “feminine” is. Feminine males break the illusion of heterogeneous masculinity, and threaten the integrity of the entire male establishment. As such, greater social control is put in place moderating men’s behavior when they step into the feminine world. They are called “sissies,” and being called a “girl” is a common form of social punishment and pressure for males, especially in competitive environments. Women – and those things associated with them – are a source of pollution from which men must be protected, and the only thing that can protect them is the shield of their own masculinity. Men must stay in groups to be protected, and be united against corruption; only by clearly dividing the lines of power and making sure that men appear to be “better” than women can male hegemony be maintained. Women who become more male-like, I would argue, lose some of the feminine miasma surrounding them, and are no longer sources of contamination. Interesting, to me this indicates that women themselves are not the source of contamination so much, but instead, femininity is.

As a disclaimer, I am also not claiming that there is no pressure for women to act feminine; their certainly is. However, “tomboys” are more common and accepted than “sissy boys” are, generally, especially in younger ages, when gender identity is still being formed (for research on this, I refer to Barrie Thorne’s book again).

Just my random thoughts for the day. If any women want to weigh in on this, please do! I am a guy, and so am not sure how the experience of the other gender matches with social norms/what I said above!

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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Philosophical Musings


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