William Brennan, Ph.D.
Now and throughout history, pejorative language has played a
major role in the longstanding victimization of women. This study
employs a comprehensive classification of degrading categories
-- deficient human, subhuman, animal, parasite, disease, inanimate
object, and waste product -- as a framework for analyzing the
demeaning words invoked to justify man's inhumanity to women.
It concludes with observations about how this pernicious anti-female
lexicon of derogation is part and parcel of a pervasive seamless
shroud of anti-life rhetoric called upon to rationalize violence
against other victims (born and unborn) in contemporary society
and in times past.
A Longstanding Tradition of Oppression Against Women
Subjection to a countless assortment of atrocities has been the
common plight of all too many women throughout much of history.
The parade of horrors has been virtually endless: the killing
of female infants, enforced prostitution, the burning of women
accused of witchcraft, widow burning, the reduction of women to
sex objects through genital mutilation, the sale of enslaved females,
wife-battering, the exploitation of young women as pornographic
models, rape, father-daughter incest, and other types of sexual
abuse. The scope, ferocity, and persistence of oppression against
women is a grim testimony of man's relentless inhumanity toward
the female members of the human race. Few groups of victims have
been exposed to such a broad spectrum of brutalities over such
a prolonged duration. The victimization has not ended; women continue
to be abused, exploited, and assaulted on a massive scale in today's
Webster defines suttee (widow burning) as "the act or custom of a Hindu woman willingly cremating herself or being cremated on the funeral pyre of her husband as an indication of her devotion to him."
Despite the voluntary and devotional elements highlighted in this definition, suttee is in actuality a cruel and usually coercive form of human sacrifice imposed on women against their wills. In Muslim India the reluctant candidate for immolation "was usually surrounded by men armed with sticks who goaded her on to her destination by physical force." Other methods of coercion consisted of tying the hands and legs of the victims as they mounted the pyre, rendering "widows suspected of weakness of will" senseless through drugs or alcohol, and pushing them into pyres built in deep, escape-proof pits.
The lengths to which the perpetrators went to ensure that the
unwilling victims be subjected to this destructive ritual can
be gleaned from an incident that occurred in 1769. A widow who
had escaped from a pyre in the rain was, on the following day,
found by a search party and dragged back to the pyre. She pleaded
to be spared but her own son insisted that she throw herself on
the pile as he would lose caste and suffer everlasting humiliation.
When she still refused the son, with the help of some others present,
bound her hands and feet and hurled her into the blaze.
One of the most horrendous atrocities perpetrated against women
began on December 13, 1937, when the Japanese army seized China's
capital city of Nanking with a vengeance. Besides engaging in
widespread looting, arson, and wanton murder, the invading forces
committed whole sexual assaults against Chinese women. The incidence
of rape was so extensive that this outburst became known as "the
Rape of Nanking." According to evidence submitted at the
International Military Tribunal for the Far East held in Tokyo
in 1946, "approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred within
the city during the first month of occupation." The tribunal
Death was a frequent penalty for the slightest resistance on the part of a victim or the members of her family who sought to protect her. Even girls of tender years and old women were raped in large numbers throughout the city, and many cases of abnormal or sadistic behavior in connection with the rapings occurred. Many women were killed after the act and their bodies mutilated.... The barbarous behavior of the Japanese army cannot be excused as the acts of a soldiery which had temporarily gotten out of hand when at last a stubbornly defended position had capitulated--rape, arson and murder continued to be committed on a large scale for at least six weeks after the city had been taken.
During the Vietnam War, some American soldiers participated in numerous gang rapes just before killing their victims. In one such incident, a squad of nine GIs went into a village supposedly on the lookout for a "Viet Cong whore." An eyewitness report revealed: "Instead of capturing her, they raped her -- every man raped her. . . . And then, the last man to make love to her, shot her in the head." In another similar episode, members of an army platoon subjected two female Vietnamese detainees "to multiple rapes, sodomy, and other mistreatments." They were both subsequently murdered; one of them was shot once in the neck and twice in the head.
Sexual assault is a stubbornly persistent crime which transcends
diverse historical periods and cultures. Down through the ages
-- in times of war and peace -- rape has been commonly employed
as a weapon to intimidate, overpower, violate, humiliate, injure,
and sometimes kill scores of women. Despite today's legal and
social efforts to end this unspeakable form of sexual terrorism,
growing numbers or women face a greater risk of being sexually
abused and assaulted. In 1987, just over 91,000 forcible rapes
were reported in the United States. This figure represents an
increase of 11 percent since 1983. A crime clock compiled by the
Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that one forcible rape takes
place every six minutes.
In ancient Rome husbands and fathers could put women to death without a public trial. Death was imposed for the most trivial offenses. A Roman husband, Egnatius Metellus, "beat his wife to death because she had drunk some wine; and this murder, far from leading to his being denounced, was not even blamed. People considered that her exemplary punishment had properly expiated her offense against the law of sobriety."
During the Middle Ages, women could be flogged through the city streets of many European countries. According to the mores prevalent in late thirteenth-century France, "provided he neither kills nor maims her, it is legal for a man to beat his wife when she wrongs him." Fifteenth-century England, the so-called "Age of Chivalry" when knights in shining armor provided damsels in distress with the utmost protection and respect--was also an era in which a popular manual imported from France, "The Knight of the La Tour Landry," furnished a highly unchivalrous prescription for dealing with scolding wives: "He smote her with his fist down to the earth. And then with his foot he struck her in the visage and broke her nose, and all her life after she had her nose crooked that she might not for shame show her visage it was so foul blemished. . . . Therefore the wife ought to suffer and let the husband have the word, and to be master."
In an article written for The Contemporary Review (1878),
Frances Power Cobbe called to public attention the pervasive scope
of wife-battering and torture in England. She disclosed that over
a three-year period about 6,000 women had been "'brutally
assaulted' -- that is, maimed, blinded, trampled, burned, and
in no inconsiderate number of instances murdered outright."
Furthermore, Cobbe identified a pronounced pattern of ever-increasing
violence associated with wife-beating:
Wife-beating in process of time, and in numberless cases, advances to Wife-torture, and the Wife-torture usually ends in Wife-maiming, Wife-blinding, or Wife-murder. A man who has "thrashed" his wife with his fists half-a-dozen times, becomes satiated with such enjoyment as that performance brings, and next time he is angry he kicks her with his hob-nailed shoes. When he has kicked her a few times standing or sitting, he kicks her down and stamps on her stomach, her breast, or her face. If he does not wear clogs or hob-nailed shoes, he takes up some other weapon, a knife, a poker, a hammer, a bottle of vitriol, or a lighted lamp, and strikes her with it, or sets her on fire; then, and then only, the hopeless creature's sufferings are at an end.
Things did not fare that much better for wives in America. The husband's right to "chastise" (a euphemism for "beat") his spouse occupied an honored position in American law and personal male behavior for a long period of time. This right was granted formal legal approval by the state of Mississippi in 1824. Other states soon followed suit. Not until 1871 did the movement for making wife-beating illegal begin to take hold in the system of American jurisprudence. In that year, courts in Alabama and Massachusetts declared: "The privilege, ancient though it be, to beat [the wife] with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her is not now acknowledged by our law."
Despite the removal of legal recognition from wife-battering
and the improved enforcement of laws against this unconscionable
practice, it still remains deeply embedded in the United States
and in other societies throughout the world. As of 1985 in America
alone, according to figures furnished by Murray Straus, director
of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory,
"more than 1,300,000 wives, out of the nation's 54,000,000
couples, are still being severely assaulted each year." This
violence includes "kicking, hitting with a fist, beating
up, biting, and using or threatening to use a gun or knife."
Ideology and Dehumanizing Language
Numerous explanations have been advanced to shed light on the question of why women have been and continue to be subjected to such widespread abuse, oppression, and degradation. Some of the most frequently advanced explanations for the oppression of women are:
A Defective Opportunity Structure--the lack of economic, legal, educational, social, and other opportunities places women in an overly dependent position which makes them highly vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation.
Sado-Masochism--this theory posits that men derive pleasure from inflicting pain on women while women enjoy being hurt to the point of extreme physical injury.
The Ideology of Patriarchy--the belief that men are inherently superior to women provides males with a convenient pretext for dominating women in all spheres of life.
Feminine Weakness--the generally smaller size and lesser muscular
strength of women gives men a decided advantage in the successful
application of physical force.
The Dogma of Male Supremacy
Each of the above theories and others not included among them provide important insights into the victimization of women. The most comprehensive explanation is the centrality of patriarchal ideology. Because the concept of patriarchy is based on the notion of male superiority, it could well serve as a foundation for the many theories that attempt to account for the deplorable treatment of women insofar as the belief in male supremacy is a major precondition for perpetuating many types of oppression against females whether they be discrimination, denial of opportunity, or physical coercion.
Although not all violence perpetrated against women can be attributed solely to a patriarchal mentality, the ideology of male supremacy is so deeply ingrained in many societies and cultures that it cannot help but have a profound impact on how men view and therefore treat women. Historically and currently, an overwhelming preponderance of violence against women has been male-induced. Many perpetrators believe that their status as males actually entitles them to exploit the minds and bodies of women in any way they wish.
The ideology of male dominance and preference -- a set of beliefs
which maintains that men are stronger, smarter, better, and more
important than women--has spawned a host of words and expressions
intended to demean and vilify females. The derogatory language
in turn functions to solidify the ideology. This in effect sets
in motion a vicious self-perpetuating cycle in which ideology
and terminology continually reinforce one another. Once unleashed,
the degrading rhetoric furnishes a convenient excuse for the commission
of violence upon the targets of the rhetoric. Patriarchal ideology
thus serves as a major source for the construction of oppressive
images of women which lead to the implementation of oppressive
actions against women.
Substantial scholarly efforts have been devoted to demonstrating
the often subtle manner in which language functions to denigrate
women and keep them in a subordinate position. In The Language
of Oppression (1974), Haig Bosmajian concluded:
While the language of racial and ethnic oppression is often blatant and relatively easy to identify, the language of sexism is more subtle and pervasive. Our everyday speech reflects the "superiority" of the male and the "inferiority" of the female, resulting in a master-subject relationship. The language of sexism relegates the woman to the status of children, servants, and idiots, to being the "second sex" and to virtual invisibility . . . . The language of sexism remains with us and exerts an influence on the male's attitudes towards and control over women and the women's attitudes towards themselves.
In addition, there are less subtle and more deeply degrading
expressions which have been invoked throughout history to justify
all kinds of horrid actions directed against women. They can be
arranged according to a hierarchy of dehumanization beginning
with the epithet "inferior" and followed by a set of
designations connoting increasing degrees of worthlessness: "subhuman,"
"nonhuman," "animal," "parasite,"
"disease," "object" and "waste product."
This particular lexicon of profound vilification, tragically,
has not been swept into the dust bin of history; it continues
to plague modern society.
A Deficient, Subhuman Gender
Down through the ages, women have been persistently portrayed
as a subpar species, sometimes lacking even the most fundamental
vestiges of humanhood. The inferiority label imposed upon those
of the female sex is frequently intended to be a totalistic notion
encompassing almost every aspect of the woman's being -- physical,
mental, and emotional. Furthermore, the incapacity attributed
to females has been often depicted as a permanent state, unalterably
imprinted in the fixed order of creation. Sometimes women are
considered so worthless that their human nature is entirely obliterated
and they are relegated to the status of nonhuman entities.
The Inferior Sex
In ancient Greece, Aristotle expounded on the "natural inferiority" of women in all spheres of activity. "The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities," he wrote. "We should regard female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness."
The Renaissance in England -- an era when women reigned as queens -- was characterized by a spate of diatribes which employed the concept of female inferiority as a foundation for castigating the "unnatural" and "monstrous" phenomenon of the female ruler. Political reformer John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) was a "declaration of the imperfections of women, of their natural weakness and inordinate appetites." A sampling of its many degrading references include: "the inferior member," "weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish," "in her greatest perfection woman was created to be subject to man" and "all woman is commanded to serve, to be in humility and subjection."
During the same period in English history, the acceptance of female inadequacy served as a basis for the subordination of women in the marital relationship. From 1562 onwards, the British Crown directed that The Homily on Marriage be read in church. This statement portrayed the woman as "a weak creature" who was "prone to all weak affectations and dispositions of mind, more than men be." In 1619, a guide to proper conduct in marriage offered the following advice to wives: "Set this down with thyself: mine husband is my superior, my Better; he hath authority and rule over me; nature hath given it to him . . . . God hath given it to him."
The notorious Marquis de Sade, who in the second half of the eighteenth century terrorized and brutalized scores of female victims to satisfy his insatiable appetite for violent and degrading sex, resorted to the most demeaning terminology when referring to women. He called woman "a puny creature, always inferior to man, infinitely less attractive than he, less ingenious, less wise, constructed in a disgusting manner entirely opposite to what is capable of pleasing a man, to what is able to delight him." This imagery dominated his perceptions and constituted a major factor in motivating his abominable behavior.
Various authors, thinkers, and philosophers are found in the forefront of endowing the vocabulary of female inadequacy with considerable respectability. Joseph Addison, a prominent English author during the latter 1600s and early 1700s, thought women "incapable of logic and not amenable to reason." The phrases "no sense of justice," "defective in the powers of reasoning and deliberation," "that undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race" and "the unaesthetic sex" comprise just some of the many derogatory characterizations of women in German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's "Essay on Women" (1851). These views led him to the conclusion that "they [women] form the sexus sequior -- the second sex, inferior in every respect to the first" and are "by nature meant to obey."
A milestone in the relentless war of words against women came in the work of another German philosopher, Otto Weininger. His Sex and Character (1906) represents one of the most extreme defamations of female character ever published: On imagination -- "women are devoid of imagination." On memory -- "A being whose memory is very slight, and who can recall only in the most imperfect fashion." On morality -- "with regard to women we can talk only of the non-moral, of the complete absence of a moral sense." On genius -- "the female must be described as absolutely without the quality of genius . . . . A female genius is a contradiction in terms." On thinking--"a woman is without logic . . . The absolute female, then, is devoid not only of the logical rules, but of the functions of making concepts and judgments which depend on them."
Weininger's assaults on female capability knew no boundaries:
"However degraded a man may be, he is immeasurably above
the most superior woman." As the result of a "long analysis,"
Weininger asserted: "There is no exception to the complete
absence in women of any true, inalienable relation to worth."
The depiction of women as immature, childish beings is another semantic device often invoked to support the doctrine of female inferiority. In line with this perspective, nothing of any consequence can be expected from women since they are irreversibly arrested at an infantile stage of development. Therefore, the best way to handle these "superficial, frivolous, sensate, and emotional creatures" is to indulge, discipline, overprotect, play with, and humor them; but never to take them seriously. Defining women as equivalent to young children lowers them to the state of individuals who are incapable of reflection, foresight, and depth of thought.
The polished and courtly Earl of Chesterfield, considered one of the wittiest and most accomplished men of his time, set forth a patronizing description of women and advice on how to deal with them in a letter to his son in 1748: "Women, then, are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit . . . . A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humors and flatters them, as he does with a sprightly forward child; but he neither consults them about, nor trusts them with serious matters; though he often makes them believe that he does both."
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer viewed women as "directly
fitted for acting as the nurses and teachers of our early childhood"
because "they are themselves childish, frivolous and short-sighted;
in a word, they are big children all their life-long -- a kind
of intermediate stage between the child and the full-grown man."
Moreover, he emphasized, "women remain children their whole
life long; never seeing anything but what is quite close to them,
cleaving to the present moment, taking appearance for reality,
and preferring trifles to matters of the first importance."
Women's "childish" ways are particularly evident, contended
Schopenhauer, in the lack of attention they give to a concert,
an opera, or a play: "the childish simplicity . . . with
which they keep on chattering during the finest passages in the
Science in the Service of Female Incapability
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists moved into the controversy over the "woman question" by endowing the stereotypes of female inferiority with an aura of empirical authority. These guardians of male supremacy -- many of them leading figures in their respective fields -- cited a vast array of measurements and observations on the "defects" in female anatomy and physiology. They became acutely preoccupied with how the "deficient" size, weight, capacity, and configuration of the female skill doomed women to an irrevocable state of mental inadequacy. Although much of the so-called data summoned represented a severe corruption of science itself and has long since been thoroughly refuted, it served an indispensable function in the history of oppression; it furnished a rationale for keeping women subjugated during a period when they collectively began to seek equality of opportunity in voting rights, wages, and education.
In his "Lectures on Man, His Place in Creation, and in the History of the Earth" (1864), Karl Vogt, a professor of natural history at the University of Geneva, employed a series of measurements taken on female skulls to back up the contention that "woman is a constantly growing child, and in the brain, as in so many others parts of the body, she conforms to her childish type."
A Miss M.A. Hardaker authored an influential article for The Popular Science Monthly (March 1882) in which she used such variables as size, brain weight, and operation of physiological processes to make the case for female limitations. She emphasized that "we have as much external evidence of the superior quality of the masculine brain as of the superior breathing power of the masculine lungs, or of the superior absorbing power of the masculine stomach." The differences in mental capacity between men and women were summarized in her comments on the relationship between size and the consumption of food: "As an actual fact, women do not consume so much food as men; nor can they do so while their average size remains so much smaller . . . . The sum total of food converted into thought by women can never equal the sum total of food converted into thought by men. It follows, therefore, that men will always think more than women." That this type of pseudo-scientific rhetoric came from the pen of a female intellectual indicates the enormous sway it had over men and women alike.
Female mental inferiority was the theme of an article written by evolutionist-physiologist George J. Romanes in the British monthly The Nineteenth Century (May 1887). Because "the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men," he declared, "on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former." He concluded that since "the general physique of women is less robust than that of men," they are "therefore less able to sustain the fatigue of serious or prolonged brain action."
Herbert Spencer, a prominent English sociologist, wrote in The Study of Sociology (1896) that the lesser-sized brains of women led to a pronounced limitation in "the latest products of human evolution--the power of abstract reasoning and that most abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice."
According to German psychologist P. Moebius in Concerning
the Physiological, Intellectual Feebleness of Women (1907),
even the woman's spirituality suffered due to lack of brain power:
"Extraordinarily important parts of the brain necessary for
spiritual life, the frontal convolutions and temporal lobes, are
less well developed in women and this difference is inborn."
Consignment of women to a nonhuman status underlies much of the sexual terrorism that dominates the contents of pornographic "literature." The writings of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) -- a heavy diet of sex, torture, and killing inextricably intertwined -- are saturated with dehumanizing images of women. De Sade's male perpetrators frequently spout their philosophy of females as contemptible subhuman creatures while engaging in endless episodes of unrelenting sexual degradation and violence. In Sade's most demeaning pornographic novel, Justine (1791), the victimizer takes time out from his brutal assaults against his female victims to express serious doubt whether "this peculiar creature [woman], as distinct from man as is man from the ape, had any reasonable legitimate pretensions to classification as a human." Even in the most banal and nonviolent pornography, assert two leaders of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, "women are not seen as human beings."
The notion of females as "subhumans" is not confined to the sadistic, perverted imagination and conduct of pornographers; it likewise functions as a major rationalization for sexual assaults perpetrated during wartime. In February 1971, American veterans of the Vietnam War testified at a public forum convened in Detroit concerning their participation in crimes against the Vietnamese people. Sergeant Scott Camil recalled a search-and-destroy mission in which a Vietnamese woman who asked for water was subjected to a series of degrading and brutal actions before being shot to death. Camil was then asked about how such unconscionable acts could be justified. "It wasn't like they were humans," he replied. "You didn't think you were shooting at a human."
Philosopher Otto Weininger's portrayal of women as entities below the level of humanity descended to rock bottom with his depiction of them as "nothing." "Women," he continually asserted, "have no existence and no essence; they are not, they are nothing." This declaration was backed up by an excruciating demonstration of philosophic mumbo-jumbo: "All metaphysical, all transcendental existence is logical and moral existence; women is non-logical and non-moral . . . . She is rather nothing." While the "male is the image of God, the absolute something," Weininger emphasized, "the female . . . is the symbol of nothing." The nothingness ascribed to women is aptly illustrated, he believed, by the "Chinaman" who, when "asked how many children he has, he counts only the boys, and will say none if he has only daughters."
Weininger's presentation of women as "nothing" contains numerous pornographic counterparts. Obscene writings are full of references to women as "nothing," "nonperson," "nonbeing," "zero," "empty" and "void." A classic illustration of the nothingness imposed on female nature is the pornographic novel The Story of O (1965), written under the pseudonym Pauline Reage. Throughout this sordid tale of moral nihilism and physical annihilation, O is subjected to interminable acts of degradation and violence: rape, sodomy, brandings, whippings, torture, ridicule, and extreme humiliation. The grim litany of sadomasochistic sex and unrestrained barbarism is predicated on one of pornography's cosmic principles: women are by nature "zeroes," "nonbeings," "nonpersons," empty "Os."
Such thoroughly dehumanizing concepts as "nonperson" and "nothing" -- veritable mainstays of pornography -- have spilled over into the vocabulary of motives constructed by rapists to vindicate their acts of sexual violence. In the words of one convicted, incarcerated rapist, "I wanted sex and there was peer pressure. She wasn't like a person, no personality."
The perception of women as "nothing" played a crucial
role in the brutal rape and beating of a young woman in New York's
Central Park by a gang of teenage boys on the evening of April
19, 1989. The pack of six youths, ranging in age from 14 to 16,
culminated a night of "wilding" -- a street term for
a spree of random hell-raising and violence -- by assaulting a
28-year-old female jogger. Over a half-hour period, they beat
her senseless with rocks and a metal pipe, raped her repeatedly,
and then left her for dead. When she was found three hours later,
her body temperature had dropped to 80 degrees, she had lost two-thirds
of her blood, and lapsed into a coma. After their arrest, the
perpetrators showed no signs of remorse. Instead, they joked about
and described what they had done as "fun." One of them
told the police that the woman was "nothing."
Demeaning animal metaphors comprise a staple of linguistic derision
directed against women from time immemorial. In one set of animalistic
images, the woman is depicted as a mindless breeder blindly following
beastly instincts and performing the strictly "animal"
functions of producing and rearing offspring. In line with another
utilization of animal analogies, underneath even the most modest
feminine demeanor lurks an insatiable, raging "sexual beast"
which covets every imaginable sexual aberration, preferably combining
lust and the most sadistic violence. One other variation on the
theme of female animality features portrayals of women as "wild
animals" in dire need of subjugation, domestication, and
tight control, including a regular regimen of physical battering.
These three animalistic images can be found in a wide variety
of sources: poetry, satire, politics, philosophy, the law, drama,
The semantic reduction of women to the status of "brood mares" was translated into practice on a vast scale in the antebellum American South. Court decisions were commonly quoted as a basis for comparing female slaves to prolific female animals: "Suppose a brood mare is hired for five years, the foals belong to him who has a part of the use of the dam. The slave in Maryland, in this respect, is placed on no higher or different grounds."
A "breeder woman," recounted former slave Martha Jackson, "brought in chillun ev'y twelve mont's jes lak a cow bringin' in a calf." And those with proven records of child production brought the highest market values. An advertisement in the Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury described a 29-year-old African-American woman with two young children as an individual who "is very prolific in her generating qualities, and affords a rare opportunity for any person who wishes to raise a family of strong, healthy servants." Still younger women displaying comparable childbearing capacities were in even greater demand. A girl of seventeen who had born two children was called "a rattlin' good breeder" and "commanded an extraordinary price."
The longstanding tradition of defining women as nothing more
than bestial breeders dies hard. Male misogynists, however, are
not the only group responsible for its perpetuation. Women who
claim to be feminists, yet harbor deep-seated hostility toward
both men and motherhood, are especially prone to accuse women
who bear and raise children of compulsive acquiescence to an animalistic
urge mandated by male supremacists to keep females in a perpetual
state of servitude. A leading proponent of this rhetoric is feminist
author Kate Millett. In Sexual Politics (1970), she referred
to the "reproduction and care of the young" as "animal
Unrestrained Sexual Bestiality
The use of gross animal imagery to stamp female sexuality with scorn and revulsion is a major theme in many literary works of the past. The early satirist Juvenal described a woman filled with sexual desire as "worse than a tigress robbed of its young." In Ben Jonson's play Epicoene (1609), Captain Thomas Otter asserted: "Wives are nasty, sluttish animals."
Two modern writers who excel in the practice of debasing women to vulgar, unbridled sexual animals are Henry Miller and Normal Mailer. These practitioners of explicit pornographic imagery under the guise of literature act out their hatred for women in novels. Their books are suffused with passages featuring out-of-control, bestial females who relish being relentlessly assaulted and ravished by masterful, macho males.
Miller's descriptions of women in sexual encounters are riddled with repulsive animal metaphors. In Tropic of Capricorn (1961), he depicts sexual conquests as equivalent to "trapping a weasel when night came on." His caricatures of female sexual behavior in Sexus (1965) abound with the most degenerate animal analogies: "She was like a bitch in heat . . . wriggling like a worm on the hook . . . . Mara twisted like an eel. She wasn't any longer a woman in heat, she wasn't even a woman; she was just a mass of indefinable contours wriggling and squirming like a piece of fresh bait . . . . groaning, grunting, squealing like a pig . . . fornicating with a rabbit . . . . She crouched on all fours like a she animal, quivering and whinnying . . . . She looked like a crazed animal."
More of the same can be found in Normal Mailer's numerous contributions to the lexicon of "rampant female sexuality animality." His Advertisements for Myself (1959) maligns women in sexual relations with the expressions "the wanton whip-thrash of a wounded snake" and "she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal." Mailer continued these degrading accounts in An American Dream (1965): "A carnal transaction with a caged animal," "that smell . . . of the wild boar full of rut" and "she was hungry, like a lean rat." During an interview, Mailer maintained that "most men who understand women at all feel hostility toward them. At their worst, women are low, sloppy beasts."
The demeaning animality attributed to female sexuality is heightened further in pornographic magazines. Hustler has featured the photograph of a woman, surrounded by the mounted heads of wild animals and animal skins, with her legs open toward a lion. The accompanying commentary emphasizes that "Lea" had abandoned "the veneer of civilization for the honesty of wild animal passions" and "the beast in her is unleashed." Furthermore, "she sees in wild creatures her own primitive lusts and desires, and she satisfies them with the uninhibited speed of a beast in heat." Also published in Hustler was a picture of a male lion on its back, with its legs spread apart in the midst of photographs of nude women.
Pornographers have developed what Susan Griffin in Pornography and Silence (1981) calls a "secret museum of classic art" portraying women copulating with animals. American, Japanese, Dutch, French, German, and Polish painters have created scenes of women being raped by bulls and coupling with goats, horses, kangaroos, and other animals. In one such painting, a virgin having sexual contact with a monkey is depicted as being "bestialized, devirginized and monkeyfied."
Cartoons published in contemporary pornographic magazines serve
as another principal source for reducing women to the level of
sexual beasts who prefer copulating with animals instead of human
beings. One of their favorite themes consists of sexual affairs
between wives and the family dog. In her extensive study of images
of debased sexuality (1987) in Playboy, Hustler,
and Penthouse, Dr. Judith A. Reisman includes copies of
cartoons depicting female bestiality published in Playboy
during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Taming of Wild Animals
The ancient times, the most minimal expressions of autonomy on the part of women would likely precipitate the imposition of wild-beast labels. In 195 B.C. the Roman legislator Marcus Porcius Cato became outraged when he witnessed a group of women publicly protesting a law which severely restricted what clothes they were allowed to wear. In a speech against repealing this law, Cato asserted: "Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal." If women receive the "total license" they seek, he warned, they will become "your masters."
Lowering women to the level of wild animals and beasts is a motif constantly repeated in a broad range of writings. In 1564 the Italian anatomist P. Borgarucci declared: "Woman is a most arrogant and extremely intractable animal." Jean Bodin, a prominent French jurist and political theorist during the mid to late 1500s, pointed to "bestial cupidity" as the reason "why Plato placed woman between man and the brute beast." "Wisdom," Bodin added, "never comes from women, whose nature is nearer to that of brute beasts."
Portrayals of women as menacing animals have been frequently invoked to rationalize harsh behavior. When Marcus Porcius Cato addressed the Roman lawmakers on the "violent and uncontrolled" nature of female animality, he also stated: "It is useless to let go the reins and then expect her not to kick over the traces. You must keep her on a tight rein." Renaissance pamphleteer Joseph Swetnam resorted to a similar analogy to justify the imposition of severe restraints on women: "As a sharp bit curbs a froward horse, even so a curst woman be roughly used."
Statements advocating woman-beating are invariably accompanied
by domesticated-animal analogies. The nineteenth-century French
poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote: "I consider that women
are domestic animals which ought to be kept locked up in captivity;
they should be well fed and cared for and beaten regularly."
Identical sentiments prevailed during the late 1800s in England,
an era when wife-battering constituted a major problem. A popular
Gloucestershire adage stated: "A woman, a spaniel and a walnut
tree, the more they are beaten, the better they be."
"The women of Lancashire," according to another favorite
saying, "are awfully fond of bad husbands. It has become
quite a truism that our women are like dogs, the more you beat
them the more they love you."
The labeling of women as parasitic creatures who cannot subsist
on their own represents a common method of denigration. Like the
parasite, the woman is pictured as possessing an insatiable impulse
to attach herself to a host (the man) in order to survive. In
what turns out to be an asymmetrical relationship, she not only
survives but flourishes, invariably at the expense of the supportive
man. Through the devices of guile and treachery, the "parasitic"
woman exploits, saps the energy from, absorbs, possesses, and
eventually devours her male host. Since much of the woman's cunning
is ascribed to sexual seduction and female artifice, she is often
dubbed a "sexual parasite." This misogynistic lexicon
is strewn with descriptions of women as "vermin," "parasites,"
"leeches," "spiders," "vampires,"
"carnivorous plants," and other repugnant, rapacious
Parasitic imagery intended to debase women is found in a wide variety of material, ranging from satire to pornography. The anti-female Renaissance propagandist Joseph Swetnam depicted women as "vermin" and a "spider which weaves a fine web to hang a fly." He warned men about the woman who "will play the horse leech to suck away thy wealth, but in the winter of thy misery she will fly away from thee." Just before subjecting his female victim to an odious diet of sexual perversion and violence, a character in one of the Marquis de Sade's novels gave a speech riddled with parasitic references to the poor, and, by extension, to the pleading, destitute woman standing before him. "Would a man devoured by vermin," he asked, "allow them to feed upon him out of sympathy? In our gardens do we not uproot the parasitic plant which harms useful vegetation?" The Swedish novelist and dramatist August Strindberg likened his wife to "the female spider that devours her mate immediately after the hymeneal embrace." Author Henry Miller's depiction of the woman's relationship with the man reads: "She clung to me like a leech."
Rene Guyon, a proponent of the woman as a "sexual parasite," wished to liberate people from what he called "the hideous bondage of conventional sexuality morality!" His unabashed proclamation of unfettered sexual license, Sexual Freedom (1950), is infested with parasitic expressions: "Woman is almost universally parasitic"; "parasitism . . . is woman's intrinsic nature"; "her parasitic instinct"; "woman's sexual parasitism is innate"; "the parasitism of women assumes multifarious forms, and is so much second nature that is may be regarded as a common place."
Elaborating more fully on the nature of female "sexual parasitism,"
Guyon declared that women in general "regard parasitism on
the male as their ideal, and if possible parasitism upon one 'host,'
a man able to provide a stable position . . . that guarantee of
permanence which is most congenial to a parasite." In addition,
Guyon maintained, "average women" exhibit a decided
disinclination "to welcome social or legal changes which
will interfere with their parasitic role." "There are,"
he continually reiterated, "many advantages in being a parasite."
The lowering of women to parasites is not the exclusive domain of men with an axe to grind against females. Some feminists are fond of utilizing this dehumanizing metaphor, primarily against those who are homemakers. Although these feminists seem to be simply in favor of giving women a choice regarding their status -- whether it be exercised inside or outside the home -- their litmus test of non-parasitism, independence, and maturity, is full-time gainful employment in the work force. Moreover, while their rhetoric is replete with images of "housewives" as "parasites" on husband, home, and hearth, it is almost entirely devoid of any references to "working women" as "parasites" on either the employer or the job.
An extensive presentation of women--particularly married women -- as parasites upon men is incorporated in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1952), touted by the publisher as "the classic manifesto of the liberated woman." De Beauvoir, a prolific French writer and towering figure in modern-day feminism, compared the situation of the "clinging" woman to "that of a parasite sucking out the living strength of another organism." She asserted that marriage turns women into "praying mantises" and "leeches" and declared that "women's work within the home gives her no autonomy: it is not directly useful to society . . . it produces nothing . . . . However respected she may be, she is subordinate, secondary, parasitic."
Women residing in middle- and upper-class families bore a significant brunt of de Beauvoir's vitriolic terminology: "The parasitic woman" leading a "parasitic existence," "she can only vegetate as a parasite in her father's home or take some menial position in the home of a stranger." De Beauvoir expressed a pronounced irritation toward women who willingly choose to "live as parasites" even when they have the wherewithal to do otherwise. Such "parasitic" women, she lamented, are "extremely demoralizing for the woman who aims at self-sufficiency."
Underlying the numerous parasitic epithets which de Beauvoir
heaps upon women in monogamous relationships is a semantic assault
on marriage in general. A sampling of excerpts from The Second
Sex reveals the jaundiced nature of this onslaught: "It
is a commonplace that marriage kills love"; "Marriage
is a form of servitude"; "Marriage is obscene in principle";
"Marriage is today a surviving relic of dead ways of life";
"The chains of marriage are heavy"; "conjugal slavery";
"Marriage diminishes man ... but almost always it annihilates
A Diseased Species
Disease analogies occupy a central position in the name-calling
directed against women. They are usually conveyed in two basic
themes: (1) women per se are defined as a dangerous "contagion"
or "plague" which infects people or pollutes animals
and things, and (2) the woman's anatomical and physiological makeup
is equated with illnesses, wounds, infirmities, and disabilities.
Such malignant stereotypes have furnished an ongoing foundation
for the numerous actions intended to isolate, exploit, and discriminate
against members of the female gender. Like other forms of devaluation,
disease metaphors possess a steadfast longevity persisting from
ancient times onward.
An Infectious, Disabling Condition
During classical antiquity, women were commonly called "plagues." The Greek writer Hesiod dubbed Pandora the first of the "damnable race of women -- a plague which men must live with." An identical view was expressed in a satirical poem, written by the Greek poet Semonides: "Yes, this the worst plague Zeus has made -- women; if they seem to be [of] some use to him who has them, it is to him especially that they prove a plague."
These images of women continued well into the 1500s. In his diatribe against female in positions of power and leadership -- The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558)--John Knox claimed that God "hath raised up these Jezebels to be the uttermost of his plagues." In addition, he asserted, "to place a woman in authority above a realm is to pollute and profane the royal seat, the throne of justice." In his Discoveries of Witchcraft (1584), English skeptic Reginald Scot labeled "lean, hollow-eyed, old, beetlebrowed women" as "the most infectious." Such statements were widely disseminated during the Renaissance, an era when reason, science, progress, and enlightenment were supposed to have supplanted the legends and myths of the dark ages.
A variation on the infection metaphor -- women as a deformity in nature -- was frequently put forth in the ancient world and later. The creator and foremost proponent in this concept was the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In Generation of Animals he included one of his most negative assessments of women: "Females are weaker and colder in their nature; and we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature."
The nineteenth century proved to be a fruitful time for the reduction
of women to the status of illnesses. In 1851 E.J. Tilt called
the woman's life cycle "a long chain of never-ending infirmities."
In a paper presented before the Anthropological Society of London
in 1869, J. McGregor Allan emphasized that "every woman is,
according to temperament and other circumstances, always more
or less an invalid . . . . Nature disables the whole sex."
Gagliani, a writer during this same period, referred to women
as "invalids" and averred that "women, therefore,
only have intervals of health in the course of a continual disease."
The Contaminated Wound
While virtually every aspect of female anatomy has been defined as a diseased component, it is the vulva which is most often subjected to this type of invective. In legends and mythology the female genitalia are often portrayed as "a supernatural wound" inflicted by a bird, a snake, or a lizard. According to Freudian mythology, the woman typically equates the absence of the male sex organ to a profound biological defect which carries over into the social, psychological, and cognitive spheres as well. This dogma of biological reductionism features a female castration complex continually renewed by the omnipresence of a permanent wound, a visible scar -- a constant reminder of the woman's pervasive inferiority. "After a woman has become aware of the wound to her narcissism," Freud taught, "she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority." In the woman-hating world of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1961), female sexual anatomy is repeatedly defiled by the expressions "it's disgusting," "an ugly gash" and "the wound that never heals."
The monthly flow of blood, fluid, and other discharges from the woman has long been seen to enhance the notion of a bleeding, contaminated wound with highly infectious, incapacitating qualities. Gagliani believed that menstruation made the woman "an invalid for six days during each month." In L'Amour (1859), French historian Jules Michelet depicted the menstrual process as a disordered state which persists for a much longer duration: "Woman is for ever suffering from the cicatrization of an interior wound which is the cause of a whole drama. So that in reality for 15 or 20 days out of 28 -- one may almost say always -- woman is not only invalided but wounded." J. McGregor Allan called menstruation a "periodic illness" and focused on its "severe disabling impact": "It will be within the mark to say that women are unwell, from this cause . . . . At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression which disqualify them for thought or action, and render it extremely doubtful how far they can be considered responsible beings while the crisis lasts."
From time immemorial, numerous alarms have been sounded about the "highly contagious" nature of the menses. The Roman scholar Pliny (61-113 A.D.) accused the menstruating woman of ruining crops, destroying gardens, and killing bees. Her touch, he added, turned wine into vinegar and caused milk to sour. The Dogon of East Africa believed that a woman undergoing her period would bring misfortune to everything she came in contact with. The peasants of Eastern Europe held that food was especially susceptible to "the deadly contagion." All would go wrong, they warned, if a woman were allowed to bake bread, make pickles, or churn butter during her period.
Such superstitions are not confined to ancient and primitive cultures. "It is an undoubted fact that meat spoils when touched by menstruating women," proclaimed an article in The British Medical Journal in 1878.
Besides being defined as a diseased state in itself, menstruation has been blamed for inducing a flood of maladies, ranging from epilepsy to that condition habitually associated with females -- hysteria. A typical exposition of this linkage was published in The Lancet (April 12, 1873), another leading British medical journal. Its author, Dr. Robert Barnes, wrote: "It is a matter of frequent observation that the first attack of hysteria or epilepsy coincides with the first effort at menstruation, and that a fit is liable to recur at successive menstrual epochs."
The portrayal of menstruating women as diseased and highly contagious
sources has furnished a major rationale for numerous injustices
-- particularly extreme segregation -- imposed upon females. In
many cultures, women have been quarantined during their monthly
periods. At the onset of their first periods, girls from the Nootka
of the Canadian northwestern coast were supplied with private
eating utensils and had to eat alone for eight months. When
Eskimo girls experienced the monthly flow, they had to crouch
in a corner, their faces to the wall, and let their hair hang
over their heads. Among some Australians of Queensland, the
menstruating girl was buried up to the waist in a secluded spot.
The soil was supposed to purify her "contaminated" condition.
As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, a rule still
existed forbidding menstruating women from entering sugar refineries
in northern France. The exclusion was based on the contention
that women afflicted with "the curse" would cause the
sugar to blacken.
The Objectification of Women
At the depths of the semantics of subhumanism, one encounters
a frequently invoked set of demeaning designations aimed at women
which can be best classified under the heading "the objectification
of the victim"; that is, the transformation of women into
inanimate objects -- mere things which have no semblance of humanity,
life, or even motion. This pervasive lexicon of denigration contains
such terms as "object," "thing," "property,"
"possession," "chattel," "toy,"
"goods," "merchandise," "furniture,"
"matter," "material," and "specimen."
These words have been utilized to justify the acts of violence
and degradation visited upon members of the female gender for
millennia. This kind of name-calling is still very much in evidence
today, and supplies a major semantic foundation for the contemporary
assaults on the body, person, and integrity of women.
Pieces of Property
The perception of women as the man's rightful "possession" to be used and abused as he sees fit is a dominant assumption of the longstanding mentality of male supremacy. It has served as a basis for laws governing male-female relationships inside and outside the family, and has long furnished a rationalization for wife-battering, rape, and other atrocities.
From early times, men created and acted upon the notion that women are licit "pieces of property" to take and possess -- often by violent means. Women thus became man's first "permanent acquisition," his first "piece of real property." Many a marriage down through history resulted from the forcible abduction of females. The earliest civil law pertaining to marriage is attributed to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. It obliged married women "to conform themselves entirely to the temper of their husbands and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions."
The notion that women are the private property of men can be located in a wide assortment of sources. Petruchio, a character in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, expressed an attitude of male ownership over females as "chattel" which prevailed in Shakespeare's day: "I will be master of what is mine own. She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn." One of the most dominant figures in French history, Napoleon Bonaparte, once asserted: "Nature intended women to be our slaves . . . they are our property; we are not theirs. They belong to us, just as a tree that bears fruit belongs to a gardener." The influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that man "must always look on woman from the oriental standpoint -- as a possession, as private property, as something born to serve and be dependent on him."
Labeling women as appropriate "objects" for male possession -- a conception with a strong legacy of legal support -- has helped endow even an act so despicable as rape with astounding toleration. For many centuries, rape was consistently defined in law, not as a violent attack on the woman, but as simply the "robbing of" or "trespass against" another man's "property."
The greatly increased incidence of rape during wartime is based on a perception of women in subjugated countries as "legitimate booty" and apt "rewards" for the victorious forces. "To the victor belongs the spoils" is a time-worn slogan invoked to rationalize gang rapes by mobs of marauding soldiers. Susan Brownmiller in her 1971 book, Against Our Will, concludes that the license to commit wanton aggression against women is motivated by "the mob's hatred and contempt" directed against "other men's property, be it furniture, cattle, or women."
Reduction of females to the status of "objects" for sexual violence is an image which is not confined to the past or to war-torn countries; it is also a prime motive employed by contemporary rapists to justify their assaults. In a series of in-depth interviews of convicted rapists conducted in the early 1980s, Diane Scully and colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University found that many of the justifications manufactured by the perpetrators were based on "the cultural view of women as sexual commodities, dehumanized and devoid of autonomy and dignity." As the result of such a perception, Scully concluded, most of the rapists displayed an alarming lack of empathy toward their victims and saw them as merely "sex objects" to be used and abused rather than as legitimate human beings with feelings and rights. As one of these sex offenders put it: "I had no feelings at all, she was like an object." Another variation on the extent to which women are objectified in rape can be gleaned from an account given by one of the rapists in Scully's study: "Rape is a man's right. If a woman doesn't want to give it, the man should take it. Women have no right to say no. Women are made to have sex. It's all they are good for."
Similarly, consignment of women to the status of "property"
furnishes a central justification for wife-beating, another all
too common barbarity. In her pathfinding exposé of wife-torture
in nineteenth-century England, Frances Power Cobbe highlighted
the significant role of dehumanizing language in relegating the
victims to the "property" of their husbands:
The special depreciation of wives is more directly responsible for the outrages they endure. The notion that a man's wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property . . . is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery. Every brutal-minded man, and many a man who in other relations of life is not brutal, entertains more or less vaguely the notion that his wife is his thing, and is ready to ask with indignation (as we read again and again in the police reports) of anyone who interferes with his treatment of her, "May I not do what I will with my own?"
Wife-battering today still exists on an enormous scale, and one
of its main justifications continues to be based on a perception
of wives as "possessions" which can be used and abused
according to the whim of the husband owner. In a study of battered
wives conducted in the mid 1970s, a woman revealed that when she
cried and protested after being beaten on her honeymoon, her husband
responded: "I married you so I own you." On the
Donahue television talk show of September 19, 1989, former wife
batterer Chuck Switzer revealed: "I considered my wife when
I married her to become my property, and I wanted absolute and
total control." Lee Grant, the director of a documentary
film on battered women, appeared on this same program. She emphasized
that wife beating is part of a well-entrenched tradition which
says: "I own this woman. I can do whatever I want to this
A common expression of female objectification is the widespread practice of regarding women as equivalent to merchandise for disposal in the marketplace. The reduction of women to the category of expendable goods to be sold, exchanged, or auctioned off according to cost-benefit mentality constituted an underpinning for the establishment and maintenance of two oppressive institutions: arranged marriage and enslavement of females.
Throughout much of history, women have had little or no say in the formation of marital unions, but were considered merely "merchandise" bought and sold by male consumers. Marriage for the wife meant reduction to the status of "chattel property" for transferal from one patriarch (the father) to another patriarch (the husband). In the medieval household, women served as "commodities" whose value depended upon how much honor, wealth, and influence their acquisition would bestow on the feudal lord. Some cultures deemed women to be of such meager worth that they were virtually given away without any financial strings attached. The Hindu Shastras, for example, viewed a daughter "merely as an object to be 'given away,' and that as soon as possible. She is declared by them to be marriageable, even in her infancy, to a person of any age, and of course without her own choice."
The merchandising of women attained cataclysmic proportions in the international slave trade which flourished for so many centuries. An especially revolting practice spawned by the perception of females as disposable slave "property" is that of infibulation, a brutal form of genital mutilation performed on girls in some parts of the Middle East and Africa. In this nineteenth-century account, the Bedouins performed infibulation on their female slaves to insure that they reached their owners undamaged: "The practice of infibulation was carried out on girls before the age of puberty. The edges of the vulva were made raw and sewn together forming scar tissue and leaving only a small opening just large enough for the function of urination. When the slave was sold to her owner, a second operation was necessary in order to make her fit for the purpose for which she was purchased." The practice of female genital mutilation, also called "female circumcision" and "clitoridectomy," which varies in degree ranging from an excision of the clitoris (in order to curb sexual desire) to radical infibulation as described above, did not pass away with slavery. Although it has been outlawed in most African countries (in many cases, only as recently as the 1980s), genital mutilation of females is still practiced clandestinely in many cultures today as a means to insure a daughter's virginity until marriage. This continued practice, compelled by the requirement that the female enter marriage as "undamaged goods," underscores the association between the female and the slave, with the female slave subject to a double oppression.
Slave markets in the antebellum American South constituted an auspicious locale for the war of words against black women to demonstrate one of its most devastating impacts. It was in this setting of extreme degradation that the translation of noxious attitudes into practice took on an awesome quality of literalness. This was the place where African-American slaves, including women as well as men, were not only called "property," "specimens" and "merchandise," but also were treated in accordance with the demeaning nomenclature.
An eyewitness account of a public slave auction held in Richmond,
Virginia, on March 21, 1856, disclosed the kind of humiliating
examination given to a woman referred to as "a piece of furniture":
"Here, gentlemen, is a young lady for you," said the assistant, as he led along a beautiful Girl, of 16 or 17 years of age. The Auctioneer began again, assistant rolling up her sleeves; all her limbs being more or less shown by him, and examined by the "gentlemen traders," as she went through the walking exercises, which was done in every case. "There, gentlemen," said the Auctioneer . . . "is as handsome a piece of furniture as can be produced in our glorious Republic."
The expressions "choice specimen," "prolific,"
"piece of property" and "merchandise" could
be frequently heard in auctions involving the exposure of young
black women to revolting scrutiny and procedures. In one such
instance, the auctioneer declared:
"Gentlemen: This is a very choice specimen . . . . What will you give for her, how much? Do I hear, $1,000? $1,000 I'm only bid for this superb piece of property! [Here one of the 'gentlemen' in a distant part of the room cried out, 'Send her this way,' and the Auctioneer stopped while the merchandise was told to 'walk out there, step lively now!' The 'gentleman' then turned the Girl round and round, told her to 'grin,' to show her teeth, and pushed her lips aside with his fingers, and then examined her person, from head to foot, asked her several questions about herself, and sent her back to the stand; the Sale then went on. $1,100 -- $1,200 -- $1,300, going at $1,300! Why, gentlemen, I'm really astonished at your backwardness! This Girl is none of your everyday Niggers! She's a specimen that some of your Abolitionists would give almost any price for."
Mere Matter and Material
In the ancient world, Aristotle articulated an influential theory of generation in which the woman's role was relegated to the insignificant status of "matter" and "material." "The contribution which the female makes to generation," he wrote, "is the matter used therein . . . . The male provides the 'form' and the 'principle of the movement,' the female provides the body, in order words the material." Moreover, Aristotle emphasized that "the male is the active partner, the one which originates the movement, and the female qua female is the passive one" who contributes nothing "but material."
Misogynists have frequently invoked Aristotle's degrading expressions
as semantic weapons in their onslaughts upon women. German philosopher
Otto Weininger, in particular, proved to be an avid curator. In
his tirades against women, he highlighted the Aristotelian notion
that "the male principle was the formative active agent,
the 'logos,' whilst the female was the passive material."
Furthermore, Aristotle's use of "the word 'soul' for the
active, formative, causative principle" prompted Weininger
to conclude that women are not simply "matter" or "material,"
but also formless objects entirely devoid of a soul. Excerpts
from his book provide some additional examples of this rhetoric:
The relation of man to woman is simply that of subject to object. Woman seeks her consummation as the object . . . . Woman is the material on which man acts . . . . Woman is matter . . . . Matter needs to be formed: and thus woman demands that man should clear her confusion of thought . . . . The soul is a masculine character . . . . The woman is material which passively assumes any form impressed upon it.
The terminology above serves as a useful vehicle for the victimization
of women. Weininger contended that "woman does not wish to
be treated as an active agent, she wants to remain always and
throughout -- this is just her womanhood -- purely passive, to
feel herself under another's will."
Some of the most degrading images of women as objects can be found in the vast contemporary pornographic industry of books, films, videotapes, music, magazines, photographs, and sadomasochistic paraphernalia. The essence of pornography consists of the incessant depiction of women as "sexual property" and "things" to be manipulated, exploited, mutilated, violated, and discarded at the impulse of the male consumer. Pornographic fare is built on graphic, explicit images of promiscuous sex combined with unadorned violence -- episodes involving females being whipped, punched, raped, sodomized, tied up, hung upside down, dismembered, humiliated, and physically annihilated. In this world of ultimate dehumanization, even the rare person who protests what is being done to her is portrayed as actually asking for it, and more of it. There is no such thing as true rape in these sordid tales since, according to the tenets of pornographic dogma, every woman deep down, her outward demeanor notwithstanding, possesses a craving to be sexually molested, assaulted, and debauched.
Pornography carries the objectification of women to new depths of debasement by an obsessive focus on the female body; the body projected -- much like the characterization pursued in Otto Weininger's invective against women -- is devoid of essence, will, spirit, soul, and integrity. It comprises pieces of sheer "material" and "matter" -- legs, sex organs, breasts, buttocks -- upon which the male acts out his lust, hostility, and aggression. The pornography manufactured by Henry Miller is replete with obsessive accounts of sexual conquests over women depicted as "impersonal matter, mindless tissue endlessly compliant." In her analysis of the dehumanization process intrinsic to pornography, Pornography and Silence (1981), Susan Griffin calls pornography a "sadistic act" which "reduces a woman to a mere thing, to an entirely material object without a soul." "Pornography's revenge against nature," she added, "is precisely to deprive matter of spirit. And so in one act, pornography humiliates woman's body, by reducing her soul."
A recurring pornographic version of female "matter" and "material" is the consignment of women to pieces of "meat" and "flesh." In many pornographic novels the female victim is hung upside down "like a piece of meat" after experiencing an increasingly brutal sequence of sexual assaults and other forms of violence. Often heard in the testimony of former porno models is the statement: "You were treated like a piece of meat." A woman new to the "business" is dubbed "fresh meat." In Henry Miller's universe of relentless obscenity, a woman is simply "bait" and "a hunk of giddy flesh."
Playboy magazine -- a pioneer in the creation of sophisticated, sexist pornography -- specializes in the peddling of another dehumanized object: women as "sexual toys" to be manipulated and consumed by avant-garde playboys. Susan Brownmiller aptly identified the staple of pornographic fare: "Females as anonymous, panting playthings, adult toys, dehumanized objects to be used, abused, broken and discarded." The playboy inevitably tires of his expendable "plaything" -- especially when it begins to show the slightest signs of age -- and opts for a younger model. Regarding the typical sexual conquest, pornographic author Henry Miller wrote: "I moved her around like one of those legless toys which illustrate the principle of gravity." In her autobiography, Ordeal (1980), former pornographic film star Linda Lovelace revealed that she was treated like "an inflatable plastic doll, a puppet. They picked me up and moved me here and there; they spread my legs this way and that; they shoved their things at me and into me." She described herself as "not a person anymore. I was a robot . . . a wind-up toy . . . . I had become someone else's thing."
The Pornographic Goliath -- an empire larger than the record
and film industries combined -- has had a drastic impact, not
only on many male perceptions of women, but also on how women
are actually treated. Robin Morgan's observation that "pornography
is the theory and rape the practice" emphasizes the
enormous power which dehumanizing language and images have on
behavior. It should hardly come as a surprise that men who are
raised on a steady diet of material overflowing with hostility,
violence, and sexual terrorism would be readily disposed to act
out these scenarios in real life; and millions of men have been
exposed to this degrading fare. It is more than coincidental that
today -- a period when wife-battering, sexual abuse, rape, and
other sexual crimes run rampant -- is also an era when society
is being polluted with a deluge of sexually arousing, degenerate,
and violent imagery. Tragically, many women have likewise succumbed
to the myth of females as erotic slaves and sex objects constructed
by the purveyors of porn, and have become imprisoned by their
Occasionally, women have even been reduced to "waste products."
The expressions "dung," "pus," "refuse"
and "sewer" represent the type of disgust-inducing terminology
Animal Excrement and Pus
For some misogynists, the imposition of animal metaphors alone was not considered dehumanizing enough; they chose instead to use the word for animal excrement -- dung -- when referring to women. During the tenth century, an epoch marked by an abundance of pejorative stereotypes of females, Odo of Cluny asked: "How should we desire to embrace what is no more than a sack of dung?" In the nineteenth century, French poet Charles Baudelaire utilized the phrase "this dung" in writing about women. He belittled his mistress by relying upon another term related to the disposal of noxious material -- "pus":
When she had sucked the marrow from my bones
And languorously I turned to her with a kiss,
Beside me suddenly I saw nothing more
Than a gluey-sided leather bag of pus!
Sewers for Waste Disposal
Another manifestation of the waste analogy is the association of women with sewers, which association has been directed primarily against prostitutes. A well-known adage which has spanned many past centuries reads: "Prostitutes are to a city what sewers are to a palace."
The sewer metaphor is not confined to prostitutes of a bygone era, but is meant to denigrate contemporary women as well. This is particularly evident in the compulsive obscenity conjured up by such modern authors as Henry Miller. To Miller, the woman's body is not only a proper object for the ventilation of male contempt, but is also equivalent to a "sewer" for the disposal of "refuse." His attitude towards the woman's sexual anatomy is summed up in the observation that "one crack is as good as another and over every sewer there's a grating." Miller's version of the typical sexual conquest consists of dumping waste into its natural disposal site, the women's body: "During intercourse they passed out of me, as though I were emptying refuse in a sewer."
The practice of associating women with animal "waste products"
has also invaded the world of crude, lewd, and blatantly sleazy
prime-time television. On the television news show Nightline
(March 2, 1989), a Michigan mother, Terry Rikolta, told about
hearing a joke comparing women to dog dung on the sitcom series
"Married . . . With Children." She elaborated that the
father of the family asked his young daughter, "What do women
and dog doo-doo have in common?" When she failed to answer,
he replied: "The older they get, the easier they are to pick
It is imperative to become fully conversant with how the victimization of women has been and continues to be facilitated by dehumanizing terminology. Another connection of major significance is the need to recognize that the degrading expressions directed against women are strikingly similar to the demeaning designations invoked against today's unwanted human beings before as well as after birth.
Furthermore, it is also crucial to realize that the relentless war of words against women and other contemporary victims shares a close kinship with the name calling aimed at some of history's most reviled groups: Native Americans; African-Americans; the victims of Soviet tyranny; and Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped in the Third Reich. For an extensive analysis of the striking parallels between the disparaging expressions constructed to devalue women and the degrading terminology manufactured to denigrate other vulnerable groups present and past, see my Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives.
A fuller grasp of the interrelationship between name calling, violence, and victim vulnerability furnishes an indispensable perspective for challenging what constitutes a widespread seamless shroud of anti-life rhetoric and replacing it with a vocabulary of humanization featuring positive, life-affirming portrayals of all human beings despite their gender, race, status, condition, or stage of development. A change of such far-reaching proportions will require a major transformation in language, attitude, and awareness undergirded by the most expansive of moral visions.