Social Control of Female Sexuality
Women’s sexual behavior is subject to social control in most if not all societies. Techniques of social control include genital mutilation, surveillance of sexual behaviors, lowered social standing for socially inappropriate sexual behavior, and increased economic value for a virginal bride. I will draw on the anthropological literature to briefly outline some common strategies for control.
In all societies where children are an economic value, the women’s reproductive potential is an important resource that must be bargained for in marriage negotiations. The father is compensated for his daughter’s reproductive capacity at the time of the marriage (brideprice). It is thus in his interest to negotiate the best bargain possible. In order to bargain for the strongest position, the father must be able to guarantee that there are no illicit claims to his daughter’s reproductive capacity and that the future husband’s paternity of their children will be undisputed. To protect his interests the father must thus be able to control his daughter’s sexual behavior. According to Paige and Paige (1981), his ability to do this is strongest in societies with the greatest resources and strong fraternal interest groups. These kinsmen act as allies to the father who can help him retrieve his daughter by force, if necessary, from an abduction or elopement and can enforce payment of compensation for any damages. With greater resources the father has the ability to back up threats to kill a seducer, and ensure virginity while delaying the daughter’s marriage past menarche in order to secure the best husband. He also can use ritual surveillance strategies such as genital mutilation to demonstrate how serious he is about ensuring his daughter’s virginity.
In societies with low-value economic resources that do not have strong fraternal interest groups, a different strategy is used. Here there tend to be public menarcheal ceremonies lasting weeks or even months with costumes, feasting, and gifts. Paige (1983) has conceptualized these as mobilization rituals that serve to mobilize a coalition of community members who will support the father’s attempt to protect the marriage value of his daughter.
In economically advanced societies where parents have attained rights to stable resources such as land, the family’s economic interest lies more in ensuring that resources will be able to be inherited by grandchildren and not squandered by the husband, and that he will be of comparable wealth or social status as the family. In some societies dowries are used to
help attain this goal (MacDonald, 1987). It is still the case that the daughter’s sexual reputation and virginity (or relative virginity) enhance her marriageability and that the family who has the resources to control the daughter’s sexual behaviors will have better chances of securing a good marriage. Paige (1983) has suggested some tactics that parents may use toward this goal, including sending daughters to sex-segregated schools or encouraging membership in sororities that participate in surveillance of sexual activities.
The advent of effective contraception has decreased the economic value of virginity and a steadily increasing percentage of adolescent women become sexually active with each new survey conducted (Morokoff, 1994). This period of social adjustment is certainly having an effect on gender expectations for sexual behavior. Evidence suggests that young women see themselves as being sexually empowered with rights to autonomy and assertiveness (Morokoff et al., 1997). More behavioral data, however, suggests that actual behavior falls far short of this ideal. Although some of society’s incentive to control women’s sexuality has been eroded, it has not disappeared. Thousands of years of interest in controlling women’s sexuality will not disappear in a couple of decades, as this interest is rooted in gender expectations based on culture, tradition, in some cases legal statute, and religion. Subsidiary concepts such as disease prevention, self-esteem, and notions of human worth support contemporary movements designed to increase abstinence, which are primarily directed toward young women.