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Women's Sexuality and Men's Fear

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Years ago, Mother Teresa was invited to attend an anti-war rally. She declined, reportedly saying something to the effect that: "Anti-war protestors are some of the most war-like people I've ever seen. I have no interest in participating in war. But, if you ever hold a pro-peace rally, let me know."

I recalled that apocryphal story last week when I received an RFP (Request For Proposals) from a large, nationally-know women's organization. The entire RFP was a rallying cry for women to get into action to combat the "Republican War on Women." I cringed and deleted the email.

Is there really a "war on women" going on? Or are we simply experiencing a never-ending barrage of fear mongering and over-the-top rhetoric being blasted from both political parties -- as well as from religious institutions, women's organizations and the media? I think it's the latter. I don't believe Republicans are waging a war on women, and neither are men.

Male-bashing doesn't get us anywhere -- we don't need to be anti-men in order to be pro-women. Republican-bashing doesn't get us anywhere either -- there are millions of good people in the Republican party who simply have genuine differences of opinion about what's best for the country. Demonizing men -- and/or demonizing Republicans -- is not helpful in finding solutions to our vexing national problems. Hating the opposite sex and/or hating the other political party only breeds more hate.

I'm with Mother Teresa: I'm not interested in speaking the language of war nor participating in war-like gatherings of women. Why do I feel this way? Let me provide some background:

About fifteen years ago, I visited a fascinating exhibit on the "History of Sex" at a prominent museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On a business trip to Southeast Asia, I allowed some extra time to take in some of the local culture. The sex exhibit struck me as odd, since my impression of Muslim countries was that sexuality is severely repressed. But perhaps I had been mistaken, since I really didn't know much about Muslim cultures. This gave me more than one reason to check out "Sex" at the Malaysian museum.

When I arrived, what first caught my attention were groups of young schoolgirls touring the exhibit. Dressed in pastel-colored blouses over long skirts, with matching scarves covering their heads, the girls looked like flocks of lovely little pastel birds flitting from one part of the exhibit to another. Each group was monochromatic -- a flock in robin's egg blue outfits, another flock in flamingo pink, still another in canary yellow -- so sweet and pretty, talking quietly among themselves as they took notes. I was struck by the visual anachronism of these young, innocent girls touring a museum exhibit on sex.

The "History of Sex" was a terrific exhibit, with well-researched timelines, archeological artifacts, artistic renderings and scientific writings by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, biologist, physicians, sociologists and psychologists, as well as enriching contributions from the arts. The entire exhibit was very well curated.

And the Malaysian schoolgirls weren't the only ones who were learning a lot from the "Sex" exhibit. My own "ah-ha" came from a display that explained: "Throughout human history, men have always had a vested interest in controlling women's sexuality -- and they've found many different ways to do it." The museum display pointed to everything from mechanical devices such as metal chastity belts, to modesty clothing like burqas, hijabs and abayas, to laws proscribing what women were allowed to do, be and have. My mind boggled at the myriad ways men have exercised control over women's sexuality and reproduction throughout the entire course of human history.

Why? Why are sex and procreation so important to men? As a social scientist, I'd surmise that part of the answer can be found in biology: Much as a male lion will kill the cubs of a lioness in order to sire his own cubs with her (thus perpetuating his genes), the human male wants to sire his own children, and he's worried about unwittingly raising any offspring sired by someone else. His biological imperative is to perpetuate his own genes in the human species, not the genes of another. This instinct is hardwired into the human animal just as it is in the lion ... and many other species as well (though not all).

I'd also argue that another part of the answer can be found in sociology and psychology: One of the worst misfortunes that can befall a human male is to be cuckolded by an unfaithful mate. What men want and need most is respect -- but a man whose wife or girlfriend has sex with another man is pitied, ridiculed, disrespected and diminished in the eyes of society. Such a threat to his masculinity and self-esteem must be prevented at all costs -- making many men hyper-vigilant in protecting their women (and their self-respect) from potential rivals.

(Sidebar: I remember how my father often smiled and said, "It's always reassuring to the father when the children resemble him," when people would remark, "Your daughter looks just like her daddy.")

There are undoubtedly other factors fueling the urgent need men feel to control women's sexuality. Economics plays a part -- as providing for a family is expensive (assuming the women isn't the primary breadwinner or at least contributing). Relationships and marriage are an investment of money, time and energy. Males are understandably skittish about making such a big commitment if there is any doubt about the wisdom of his investment. Even a hint of unfaithfulness can trigger intense feelings of betrayal and the desire for financial retribution.

The Malaysian museum's "History of Sex" exhibit reminded me how complex and multi-faceted human sexuality is. We would do well to take a step back from the heated rhetoric of the "war between the sexes" and take a more thoughtful, rational, contextual look at our gender differences. Studying and understanding human sexual behavior from the point of view of ethnobiology, zoology, sociology, history, psychology, economics, anthropology, political science, theology, and the arts as well can help us understand ourselves better. In so doing, we can make progress in finding solutions to our most vexing people problems -- including gender and sex problems.

Who knows? Perhaps more thoughtful people will come to realize that no one is "waging war on women." Perhaps, as the exhbit suggest, men (well, some men) are simply acting out an instinctive biological imperative -- reinforced by thousands of years of history and tradition -- going to any lengths to control women's sexuality. The bottom line is: Men feel the need to exert control over women essentially because they're afraid.

Men and women both have a vested interest in putting a stop to the "gender war" - in America and around the world. Isn't it time to declare a cease-fire? Isn't it time we learn to live and work together in peace? Let's begin by calling a truce in the war of words.