Gender and race in the cult of true womanhood


trigger warning for rape, sexual assault, coercion.

I came across this video by Jamilah Lemieux, aka Sister Toldja, on how cultural assumptions about race and gender shape the way we respond on a societal level to teen pregnancy. My comments are directly below; click to jump to the transcript.

There’sa lot to be unpacked in this clip, but it particularly brought to mind a similar and consistent racial double standard in how white conservative Christian culture generally frames the relationship between gender and sexuality. “Real” femininity is often defined in a way that almost inherently excludes women of color – and indeed, all women fall outside an extremely narrow and privileged ideal of what “true womanhood” is.

One example of this is the ideas the abstinence movement puts forward about what women “naturally” want when it comes to sex and relationships. Abstinence advocates argue for a binary, complementarian understanding of gender, sexuality, and intimacy. Men, they argue, want sex (with women) and women want relationships (with men). Women don’t really want sex – certainly not compared to how much men want sex – and are thus more capable of resisting sexual temptation than men. See, for instance, one church’s guide to a popular complementarian book on sex and relationships which claims that “sexual purity [is] easier for women than for men.” [source: Study guide to Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor]

Women have sex outside of marriage, the story goes, not because we want to, but because we are either pressured into it, or tricked into believing that sex will bring what all women really want – emotional intimacy, commitment, and security, all provided by a man. None of these things, of course, can really exist outside the commitment (read: contract) of heterosexual marriage, because a man who’s already getting sex has no reason to provide a woman with any of that stuff. Or, to cite a charming quote from the aforementioned complementarian relationship manual: “If it’s harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be one reason is that they don’t have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.”

Marriage, under this model, is basically an institution divinely designed as an exchange of commodities between husband and wife, to allow them to both get what they really want out of each other. The husband gives relational love and commitment to the wife in exchange for her giving him sex. It’s all very romantic.

The story continues that true women need to be protected from men’s voracious sexual appetites until marriage, so we’re not roped into sex we don’t really want without getting anything for it in return. True, godly men therefore have to exert herculean levels of self-control to shelter women from male sexual desire – to keep us from being “defrauded” and having our purity sullied: “If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing?”  Incidentally – if the idea that men have to work really hard not to have sex with women sounds like it borders on rape apologism to you, you’re not wrong. The very next sentence in the guide: “Does it make any difference if the woman is willing?” Implied answer: no.

Yet somehow women are still far more to blame if premarital sex does occur, because, after all, men can barely control their sexual passions to begin with. The burden is more on women to exercise sexual self-control because they are “naturally” more capable of such self-control: “How is a woman’s sexual self-control a powerful force in society?  What happens to a society when its women do not exercise sexual self-control?” [Study guide]

This is the dynamic that produces the gendered double standard that Lemieux describes. Teen girls and unmarried women are overwhelmingly the focus of moral panic and concern trolling about out of wedlock pregnancy in the abstinence movement (as in mainstream culture) – not boys or men – because the idea is that as the ones more capable of sexual self-control, women shoulder more of the responsibility for (it’s assumed) agreeing to the sexual contact that led to pregnancy. Because it is believed that boys and men almost can’t help but act on their sexual desires (for women), male heterosexuality is unquestioned and unchallenged; we erase men from the picture of teen pregnancy even though they are equal participants in sex.

The focus is instead placed on women as the ones who could have prevented sex from taking place – who should have acted as gatekeepers. Because real women don’t want sex, any evidence of female sexual desire or activity must be challenged and punished. So it produces a situation where the same action on heterosexual desire is completely understandable and gets a pass for the male partner, but is condemned, interrogated, worried over, and punished for the female partner.

Accordingly, much of the policy the abstinence movement advocates disproportionately seeks to punish girls and women for being sexually active – opposing HPV vaccines for girls, opposing access to condoms, birth control, abortion, and other family planning information and services, opposing social programs that help young and/or single mothers to provide for their families, that provide their children with vital educational and after school services, that allow them to manage their fertility and plan their family size as they see fit. Underlying all of this is the mindset that women need to face consequences for choosing to be sexually active  – and a mindset that refuses the acknowledge the reality that many women, including many teen girls, are coerced, assaulted, or raped and that these all factor into teen pregnancy and other issues conservatives claim to be so concerned about.

In sum, the abstinence movement claims that women are naturally chaste in comparison to men, who really have to work long and hard at chastity. But as I’ll discuss in the next post, the same conservative Christian culture that pushes abstinence also frequently stereotypes of women of color  – especially black women – as habitually promiscuous, hypersexual, and generally unable or unwilling to exert any sort of self-control in how we express our sexuality. When you juxtapose this idea that women of color are naturally unchaste with the notion that “true women” are naturally chaste, the clear message this sends is that women of color are not really women.


Transcript [edited only for readability]:

My name is Jamilah Lemieux, and I’m a freelance writer.

Tell us about your article.

My article is called “Becky’s [got a] baby.”

I’ve found that the…increase in media attention around teen pregnancy has, there’s been a change in narrative, and it’s gone from…the poor minority girl who has somehow failed society and failed her family to… the unlucky, unfortunate young white woman who’s worthy of our sympathy. And I don’t think it’s fair. I think that any young woman who’s in that position deserves the same level of sympathy and support. And you know, it’s really interesting that when the face of teen pregnancy was a Black or Hispanic young mother [clip of a black infant and a young black woman] …it was this thing for shame, and darkness, and now that it’s, you know, we’re seeing more white women in the media who are doing it, it’s something to be not celebrated, but examined more carefully.

What roles do race & gender play when discussing teen pregnancy in the media?

The media is a lot easier on young white women who find themselves pregnant as teens compared to black girls, or hispanic girls, or women from any other ethnic group. As far as gender goes, young men are largely left out of the conversation, which doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have a teen pregnancy without a boy or a young man who’s also participated. So we’re blaming the girls, or now we’re being a little bit more sympathetic, but we’re not examining the reasons that both genders have chosen to either be sexually irresponsible, or are simply misinformed, and don’t understand what they could have done to protect themselves or to prevent a pregnancy. We’re not talking about the possibility that, you know, a lot of young women are coerced by boyfriends, you know, some of whom are older than they are, not to wear condoms or to engage in sex before they’re ready. So there’s a lot of factors at hand that lead to young women getting pregnant, and unfortunately we’re only talking about a certain segment of the population now. We’re leaving out the brown girls and the boys.

How is the growing popularity via the media affecting society at large?

I think that now that the face…of the teenage mother has become white, thanks to MTV’s 16 and pregnant and Teen Mom, it has become more acceptable [clips of white infants, white teens and teen parents]. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s…encouraging young women to get pregnant, but there have been stories of young girls who allegedly have timed their pregnancies to try to get a spot on one of those shows. I think it’s good to alleviate the stigma of shame surrounding teen motherhood, and if we have to through a white face to have that done, then there is some beenfit to it, but I just think that the conversation that we need to have about why young women across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and young men, are engaging in high risk sexual behavior. That conversation needs to be had.

What do you want people to take from your piece?

I hope people will understand or… be reminded that we’re not post-racial at all. Some of the things that may seem like progress, such as…ending the stigma or lessing the stigma surrounding teen mothers is also a reminder that we still have leaps and bounds when it comes to managing race in this country. Because again, if the…young women and girls on the teen mothers show were black or hispanic or asian, they wouldn’t be on the cover of people magazine [images of white teen parents in People magazine; images of Bristol Palin]. We wouldn’t be looking at them to be reality celebrities and we wouldn’t have the same level of sympathy towards them. Maybe I would or you would, but you know, people that follow those shows religiously either wouldn’t, or they’d be watching to say, “Well, look at what these black girls are doing,” and “They’re tearing down the moral fiber of this country,” and it probably somehow would become reason to discuss why Barack Obama shouldn’t be president. So I just hope that people understand that this new wave of discussion about teen pregnancy is revealing a lot more than we think, and that it’s not just about teen sexuality.

Thoughts on XhibitP?

I think the biggest thing when using art as social activism is to inspire conversation…and that conversation leads to action. So someone may watch this and totally disagree with me, or with someone else that they’ve seen interviewed, and someone may have some sort of paradigm shift, or someone may just be convinced that everything is ok and we’re just wasting our time here. But ultimately, movements like this can be…the catalyst to inspire people to action. So I hope that anyone that’s checking out XhibitP for the first time becomes a longtime supporter.

[outro of Lemieux talking and laughing]

Jump back to the top of the post.

4 Comments

  1. Random thoughts I had while reading this post (I am really tired; apologies for incoherency):

    How much of the belief that male sexuality is a stronger impulse than female sexuality comes from the fact that most of the people writing about this topic in the Christian sphere are men? How much of it has to do with the fact that female arousal and orgasm are pretty much invisible and unquantifiable compared to male? How odd that Christians, of all people, would be the ones to say, “if I can’t see it, it must not exist”.

  2. Pingback: Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont. « Are Women Human?

  3. Pingback: Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont « Are Women Human?

  4. Pingback: Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont « Are Women Human?