Monday, 24 September 2012

What is patriarchy?

After quite a series of Notes on my Facebook on sexuality and feminism, none of which went anywhere very much, I wrote a couple of enormously long ones to try and tie it all together.  Here's the first one, which I published as a Note on 6 August 2012.
I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature a lot, as you'll see; the central argument of this essay is owed to it, though framed differently from how Pinker would see it.  Throughout what follows, I endorse or critique various points in that book.  Exactly which points, I encourage you to find out by reading it for yourself. 
Also, I know much more about Western history than other parts of the world, which unfortunately means I've had to focus on Western patriarchy.  This doesn't mean there haven't been, or aren't still, other patriarchal civilizations; it just means I can't discuss in depth how their patriarchal systems evolved over time. Trigger warning: I discuss rape. 

A long time ago, I read an address by the famous feminist Andrea Dworkin to a mostly male audience, entitled I Want a 24-Hour Truce In Which There Is No Rape.  More recently I've read parts (only parts thus far, I fear) of Susan Brownmiller's foundational feminist work Against Our Will.  Both are recommended reading, especially the latter; which is why I shall try to argue as respectfully as I can against a concept that is common to both. 
Dworkin's address included the impassioned plea to men: "Stop your side for one day."  I would like to end rape, I truly would; but the idea that I have more influence over it than a woman does, on the basis that rapists are somehow my "side", was both confusing and disturbing.  (To anticipate a criticism, Dworkin made it quite clear elsewhere in the piece that she was addressing men who claimed to oppose rape.) 
What Dworkin implies, Brownmiller explicitly asserts: "From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear."  Now, most radical feminists have been accused of believing that "all men are rapists", and that is just as much of a misinterpretation here as it always is.  Brownmiller elaborates:
The Greek warrior Achilles used a swarm of men descended from ants, the Myrmidons, to do his bidding as hired henchmen in battle. Loyal and unquestioning, the Myrmidons served their master well, functioning in anonymity as effective agents of terror. Police-­blotter rapists in a very real sense perform a myrmidon function for all men in our society. Cloaked in myths that obscure their identity, they, too, function as anonymous agents of terror. Although they are the ones who do the dirty work, the actual attentat, to other men, their superiors in class and station, the lasting benefits of their simple-­minded evil have always accrued.
What benefits?  Brownmiller continues:
A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe for it may turn into a weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent. Myrmidons to the cause of male dominance, police-­blotter rapists have performed their duty well, so well in fact that the true meaning of their act has largely gone unnoticed.
I wouldn't dream of denying that the threat of stranger rape has, in fact, had this effect on women during a depressingly large portion of human history; and I've read the Charles Johnson piece where he reduces Brownmiller's claim to pretty much that.  But Brownmiller seems to be asserting more: "nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear" -- italics original, boldface mine. 
This implies a couple of propositions fairly strongly which I don't think can be sustained.  It implies that, when a predator targets a woman alone at night, he's thinking something along the lines of Female breaking protocol!  In the name of the brotherhood, I shall punish her, though I sacrifice my freedom.  And it implies that many men spotting the crime headlines in the paper the following day think That one nearly slipped through the net.  Thank God he caught her.  I'm not in a position to falsify the first directly, and as regards the second I may, for all I know, be exceptional in feeling only horror.  But neither seems at all likely. 
Rape by a stranger has never been acceptable even in the most male-dominated of societies.  On the other hand, the exact rationale for penalizing it has changed fairly radically, and especially since the publication of Against Our Will.  Since time out of mind, patriarchal societies of all stripes have treated rape not as an act of violence against a woman, but as an act of theft against a man -- the woman's husband if she has one, or her father if she does not.  Very often the woman is executed as an accomplice to the crime.  And I think this is the key to understanding patriarchy.  Patriarchy is not a war of men against women; it is a war of men against men, in which women's bodies are the spoils. 

Patriarchy is at its most blatant in polygynous societies.  By "polygynous", I mean societies where men may have multiple wives -- this accounts for roughly five-sixths of known human cultures; or, more strictly, the (approximately) half of those in which men actually often do have multiple wives.  Since there are roughly as many men as women in any given society, for every man with four wives there must be three with none.  King Solomon's legendary thousand wives and concubines must have left 999 men involuntarily celibate. 
Logically, you might think, the problem would fade away if the women were also allowed multiple husbands, or to take lovers besides their husbands.  The former is vanishingly rare; the latter less so, but always tightly circumscribed by customary rules.  Neither is found in societies with male-line inheritance of property, because it would cast too much doubt on paternity.  So far from joining forces in any kind of conspiracy, men in such cultures jealously struggle to block other men's access to "their" women -- which necessarily entails preventing the women themselves from socializing freely.  Hence, in practice, women enjoy all the rights and status of livestock.  The Veggie Tales retelling of the David and Bathsheba incident (II Samuel 11--12) is inadvertently revealing: it turns out that women can be replaced by rubber ducks with no change to the structure or message of the story. 

When historical records begin, the Greeks and Romans had already adopted monogyny -- one wife per man.  This was certainly not for the sake of women's freedoms; women in ancient Greece were veiled and confined to the house.  Nor was it intended to give lower-class men fairer access to marriage, because a (rich) man could still legally take concubines and slave-girls in addition to his wife.  Rather, because wealth and status are so critical in the patriarchal competition for women, the law was intended to consolidate inheritance.  Only a man's wife's sons could inherit his property.  His sons by other women were, literally, second-class citizens. 
Christianity, which arose among those lower classes, officially disapproved of promiscuous behaviour in both sexes.  Again, it seems only exceptionally enlightened individuals (such as Jesus of Nazareth) were concerned about female well-being.  More often (as with St Paul or St Augustine) it was a question of purity.  In practice, as always, the purity regulations fell more heavily on women; men can, and women cannot, deny involvement when landed with an incriminating pregnancy.  Meanwhile, those men who do take sexual purity seriously all too often blame the subjects of their sexual attractions for "tempting" or "enticing" them.  At this point in Western history, the war of men against men over women's bodies changed direction, and much of it became covert.  But it did not cease, and it did not become less integral to the motor of society. 

In the Middle Ages, poets began to idealize the passionate attraction that psychologists call "limerence", and the rest of us "being in love" or "infatuation" depending on whether or not we approve of the pairing.  (To earlier writers, love had been largely a comic matter, no more noble than being drunk.)  However, marriage at that time was done solely to secure alliances and produce heirs.  Mediaeval love stories are invariably adulterous: young knights court and bed their lords' wives.  When Lancelot finally makes it with Guinevere, in a typical instance of the genre that happens to have survived, there is no notion that her husband King Arthur loves her, or that she ought to love him. 
In the opening chapter of The Allegory of Love, C. S. Lewis discusses at length a thirteenth-century Latin text entitled De Arte Honeste Amandi ("On the art of loving honourably"), by one Andreas Capellanus, a manual on the proper way to play the courtly-love game.  Lewis paraphrases:
Only women who are "enlisted in the soldiery of love" are praised among men.  Even a young unmarried woman should have a lover.  It is true that her husband, when she marries, is bound to discover it, but if he is a wise man he will know that a woman who had not followed the "commands of love" would necessarily have less probitas [honesty].
It has apparently not even occurred to Andreas Capellanus that, in this case, the lover might have a shot at marrying the lady himself.  That's simply not what marriage was about.  Children's stories of princesses marrying their "true love" are of later origin; the idea first surfaces not long before Shakespeare's time.  Unfortunately, few husbands were in fact as accommodating as Andreas recommended.  Forbidden love was a fruitful source of murders, duels, and feuds. 

One such affair is the subject of Matty Groves, a traditional folk ballad which can be traced back to the 17th century but is likely older.  Lord Arnold's wife (she has no name) invites the commoner Matty Groves to sleep with her one night when Lord Arnold is away.  Finding the two lovers in bed, Lord Arnold allows Matty to dress ("It'll never be said in fair England I slew a naked man"), gives him the better of his two swords, and allows him a free strike before killing him.  His wife gets no such honourable treatment; when the duel is over she refuses Lord Arnold, who promptly stabs her to death, or in some versions beheads her.  There is patriarchy, men's war over women's bodies, in a nutshell.  He won, and with handicaps at that -- how dare she not give him his prize? 
Folk-singers repeating the ballad today naturally paint Lord Arnold as the villain, and his wife and Matty as victims.  I think we may be misreading the verse that goes:
And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free, 
"I'd rather have a kiss from dead Matty's lips than you and your finery."
"Never heard to speak so free" implies, to modern ears, that Lady Arnold has until now been living in fear in an abusive relationship.  While likely true of such marriages, I fear this is not what the original minstrel meant.  To "speak free", in an old usage, is to be blunt, presumptuous, or rude.  Lord Arnold is warned of the betrayal by a servant, whose loyalty is absurd if the Lord is an abusive monster, but makes perfect dramatic sense if he is a man wronged.  No, in the ethos of the time, Lady Arnold is the villain, Matty Groves the duped victim, and Lord Arnold the tragic executor of justice. 

The mediaeval Church took a dim view of sexual passion in any form, including "love".  The sex act itself was fine in the context of a Christian marriage; but to enjoy it was spiritually dangerous, and to desire it sinful.  It was altogether holier to opt out entirely, and -- in theory -- all clergy in the Western church did so.  This might seem to remove them from the male war for women's bodies that I have identified with patriarchy.  Certainly it positioned them as neutral arbitrators in the contest.  However, while (officially) declining to enjoy women's bodies in the sense of actually having sex with them, the Church effectively asserted a pre-eminent right to control women's bodies via its self-appointed position as final arbiter on sexual morality.  I'll return to this distinction later. 
Then as now, many clergy fell short of their calling; indeed, perhaps more then, since many people were devoted to the religious life at birth rather than choosing it.  Here is the late 15th-century witch-hunters' textbook, the Malleus Maleficarum (authorized by the Pope), on the subject:
The injury to reputation is shown in the history of the Blessed Jerome, that the devil transformed himself into the appearance of St Silvanus, Bishop of Nazareth, a friend of St Jerome. And this devil approached a noble woman by night in her bed and began first to provoke and entice her with lewd words, and then invited her to perform the sinful act. And when she called out, the devil in the form of the saintly Bishop hid under the woman's bed, and being sought for and found there, he in lickerish language declared lyingly that he was the Bishop Silvanus. On the morrow therefore, when the devil had disappeared, the holy man was scandalously defamed; but his good name was cleared when the devil confessed at the tomb of St Jerome that he had done this in an assumed body.
Not all of the common people were fooled.  This poem, a mix of English and Latin, also from the late 15th century, complains of "flen flyys and freris" -- fleas, flies, and friars:
Fratres Carmeli navigant in a bothe apud Eli, 
Non sunt in coeli quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk
Omnes drencherunt, quia sterisman non habuerunt, 
Fratres cum knyvys goth about and txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt... 
The italicized portions have been stepped forward a letter in the alphabet.  As V and W were not then distinct from U, nor J from I, they read, respectively, "fuccant wivys of heli" and "swivyt mennis wyvis".  Translating the Latin and modernizing the English, the verse reads:
Friars of Carmel sail in a boat to Ely, 
They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely. 
All have drenched [drowned], because they did not have a steersman, 
Friars with knives go about and swive men's wives. 
"Fuccant" is Flen Flyys' chief claim to fame -- it is the oldest known instance of this word with its present-day meaning.  "Swive" is a synonym of it, now obsolete.  Note, again, the substance of the complaint.  It is not that the friars are breaking the sexual purity taboo, or coercing women against their will; Flen Flyys says nothing about churchmen "swiving" nuns, prostitutes, or widows.  The complaint is that they are taking women who belong to other men. 

The bad reputation the Enlightenment currently holds among progressives is exaggerated, I think.  It's too easy to forget just how much more horrible the Western world was before it.  The Enlightenment killed the witch-hunts, halted legal public torture, launched Democracy 1.0, and got the ball rolling on the abolition of slavery.  The complaints against it at the time mostly come from contemporary equivalents of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.  Some Scottish churches were still placing the 1736 decriminalization of witchcraft on a list of "national sins" fifty years after the fact. 
But the Enlightenment did send colonizing armies out from Western countries into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and into the remoter parts of the Americas; though the value of human life increased substantially, that increase was far outpaced by the expansion (via science) of the means to destroy life.  And the Enlightenment conception of the rights of man was just that -- the rights of man.  Enlightenment liberalism split the world into the public sphere, where men conducted commerce and discourse with the state as peacekeeper, and the private sphere of the home, where a man could do as he pleased without state interference.  Which is to say, he could do as he pleased to the other people who lived in his home. 
It was perfectly acceptable, until shockingly recently, for a man to force his wife to have sex with him.  Within my lifetime, in 1979, some judges and politicians (male, of course) were still arguing that getting married entailed giving consent in perpetuity.  To this day some religious groups say the same, though fortunately their opinions do not have the force of law.  What changed people's minds was the women's rights movement, which in the 1970s was loud, angry, radical, and hard to ignore.  At the time many would have added "...or take seriously."  Events have proven them wrong. 
Most of the human rights ideals we today consider to be basic decency (civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and so on) came from radical movements on the Left.  Nowadays liberalism has made them its own; many lefties understandably resent this as a sort of plagiarism.  What's really happening, I think, is that the definition of "liberal" is steadily shifting.  What's "liberal" today was "radical" for our grandparents, or in some cases our parents.  Their "liberal", meanwhile, is our "conservative".  Which necessarily implies that the radicals keep winning -- provided they can frame their arguments in terms of individual rights.  The past Left victories that were rolled back under Reaganism-Thatcherism, notably unions and the welfare state, are those that downplayed, or never adopted, an individual-rights stance. 

Enlightenment intellectuals also introduced capitalism to the world; and that, it seems, with the best of intentions.  Immanuel Kant suggested that trade would remove much of the motivation for violence.  If I can buy something off you, I don't need to mug you for it.  We can both gain from the transaction, whereas without trade every gain by one of us is a loss for the other.  Additionally, as Adam Smith pointed out, we are now free to specialize in what we do best, and can sell the surplus to buy other things.  This is more efficient than doing everything ourselves, and so between us we shall produce a lot more than if we weren't trading.  Both principles work for organizations and countries just as well as for individuals. 
It turns out to be true that two countries who trade with each other are unlikely to attack each other.  But I have to wonder about some countries' attitudes to their trading partners' wars with third parties.  The comic John Clarke, in his famous "Fred Dagg" persona, presented a plan to revive New Zealand's economy: write a letter to Russia reading "You blokes stink and if you don't watch it we'll come over there and do you like a dinner.  Yours sincerely, Iceland."  Cold places were chosen because then the soldiers would need lots of woollen clothing and beefy, buttery meals.  And this would indeed, as he pointed out, recreate the conditions in which New Zealand had thrived previously.  It doesn't take much imagination to see how weapons manufacturers might apply the lesson. 
We are still deeply divided over capitalism, and the key to the division is the question of power.  Two paragraphs ago, I got you to picture you and me as trading partners.  Naturally, you pictured us as having equal bargaining power in the arrangement.  Now, let's add some details.  Let's say the year is 2308 or so, we both live in a libertarian space colony, and I own the only oxygen factory.  Any questions?  What's that?  Why, no, I won't supply someone while they set up a competing business.  It's all in the contract you signed. 

In this hypothetical situation, where one partner can manipulate the market at will and the other has no choice but to accept it, we might give more credence to Karl Marx's idea that the surplus value which capitalism calls "profit" is simply stolen from the labourers.  We might expect to see industrialists wielding their economic power in predatory ways that differ from violence chiefly in being slower.  Marx himself would take it further, envisioning the industrialists and labourers as members of opposing classes, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, locked in dialectical conflict until the latter should unite and rise against their masters.  After which, there being no class divisions left, power imbalances would (gradually) level out and violence would cease. 
My politics have always been solidly Left-aligned, so it is with reluctance that I admit: the experimental data shows Marx went wrong somewhere.  Every time a Marxist revolution has defeated its oppressors by armed force, the Communist Party has promptly become a ruling class in its own right.  Class divisions are not the primal, essential foundations of society's architecture; they emerge from the web of power relations between individuals.  To judge scientific and economic ideas according to their class affiliations is to court disaster, as the Soviet and Maoist agricultural programmes found.  And the habit of thinking of people as mere components of a collective entity, to whose interests their rights are subordinate, undermines the relationships of trust on which all peaceful coexistence depends. 
But, arguably, the major arena in the modern West where individuals are still expected to surrender their autonomy to a collective entity is the corporate or bureaucratic workplace.  I don't have the leisure time to analyse statistical data in depth, but I strongly suspect that most real-world trade relationships exist somewhere on a continuum between the Enlightenment and Marxist conceptions.  I further suspect that what determines any particular partnership's position on that spectrum is the power differential between the trading partners. 
In a 2008 article for Scientific American entitled "Do All Companies Have to be Evil?" (now ironically behind a paywall), Michael Shermer compares the continuing success of Google with the spectacular downfall of Enron.  The difference, he concludes, lies in the fact that Google encourages social networking -- meaning people collaborating with each other, not Twitter and Facebook -- among its staff, whereas Enron sought to inspire excellence by spurring its employees to compete in zero-sum contests.  Extending his argument, it would seem that any business becomes both more ethical and more efficient the more closely it approaches being a democratically-run workers' co-operative. 

But that isn't how most companies are run.  Most companies are dictatorships.  Despite clear evidence that extrinsic motivators stifle creativity and lateral thinking (e.g. this study), most large companies lavish huge bonuses on their top executives and employ carrot-and-stick discipline on lower ranks.  Unlike much other corporate bad behaviour, such as skimping on worker safety or damaging the environment, it's hard to see how this increases returns for investors. 
A clue to what's going on may be found in this screencap:

Fig 1: Google image search for "CEO"

I doubt that any significant number of secular organizations consciously strive to keep women out of positions of power.  It's somewhat more plausible that people might have unconscious biases against the idea of women in leadership, bolstered by their factual observation that there aren't many women leaders about, and that those biases systematically distort the promotion process.  It's likely that the amount of childcare and housework women are stuck with at home impinges on the amount of time and effort they can put into their paid work, but that can't be the whole explanation because many women work heroic hours on low-wage jobs while also raising a family. 
For my money, the most likely hypothesis is this.  As you raise your income, the primary motivation to raise it further changes.  At the bottom, you're scrambling for money to pay the rent.  At middle levels, you may be living comfortably but sharply aware that this will change if you lose your job.  As you get richer, the threats to your survival fade first, followed by the threats to your comfort, and then perhaps the restraints on your creative freedom.  Once your income meets your personal needs, you'll presumably let it plateau. 
So what personal need drives the richest people to keep getting richer?  For some, it might be extending their ability to provide for others further and further into the future.  But many very rich people make a lifestyle of conspicuously consuming needlessly expensive luxury items and services.  Often, there seems no point at all beyond making sure everyone knows how rich they are.  Who would care about that? 
Men would care.  Men who take status contests seriously would care -- the same men, then, who would baulk at having "their" business enterprise democratized out from under them.  And in any really serious male status contest, the prize for the highest rank is sex.  In a word, it's patriarchy. 

Time for a sanity check.  What claims am I making about Bill Gates' personal life?  Am I saying that rich and powerful men all get huge amounts of sex from dozens of women?  A few do -- Hugh Hefner does; but Hugh Hefner is a joke, not a winner in the prestige stakes.  Think of the outcry when Bill Clinton, then the most powerful man in the world, got caught receiving oral sex from one White House intern.  Doesn't this make a nonsense of my whole theory of patriarchy?
Well, obviously I don't think so, or all this build-up would have gone to a bit of a waste.  I have no privileged insight into Bill Gates' marriage.  But, if Melinda were for any reason to choose to walk out on him, I think I can make an educated guess at just how many nights he would spend crying into his pillow alone.  It's a question not of how much sex rich men actually enjoy, but how much they have the option of enjoying. 
Now it's starting to sound like I'm hedging my bets.  Recall that in traditional patriarchal societies, sex (consensual or otherwise) with an unmarried woman is seen as a theft from her father.  Most of those fathers are not having sex with their daughters.  Rather, it is their prerogative to control their daughters' bodies that is being violated.  That's the goal of the patriarchal conflict.  If you think that's special pleading, we do the same with every other good, commodity, and resource that we value.  I don't eat my groceries the moment I obtain them, I take them home and put them in the fridge.  I don't get the food from my employer, I get money to buy it with.  And I don't keep much money in my wallet, most of it goes in my bank.  In each case I happily defer enjoying the resource in favour of controlling it.  When women's bodies become chattel, sex is the same. 

How, in men's perception, does money give them more sexual options?  Prostitution is an obvious, and important, answer, but not the only one.  The idea that a man is owed sex if he pays for an expensive date is still widespread, especially among men (as seen in this study -- although neither money nor respondent gender was as big a factor as respondents' belief that women often pretend not to want sex).  Men notice that romance novels, romantic comedy movies, and dating reality-shows tend to fixate on conspicuous wealth, and draw natural inferences about female desire, to which they adduce the truism that a rich man has more to offer a potential wife than a poor one.  Any man who values sex on demand highly will strive to be the richest guy around. 
(At this point, some smart-arse is bound to bring up my previous Notes [which I will turn into a blog post here soon] demonstrating that capitalism rewards early luck over talent and effort; why, then, would the people trying to gain wealth and power be the ones who succeed in gaining it?  The answer, of course, is that you do still have to be in the game to be capitalizing on that early luck.  If the top player in my simulations retires and takes their winnings home, the competition is not then dominated by their ghostly presence sucking the money out; the next-luckiest competitor simply takes over.) 
Meanwhile, it will be in the same man's interests to promote values of sexual purity.  Internalizing such values will make his rivals less of a threat, and his female partners less likely to stray.  There may, perhaps, be fewer prostitutes about (though with so few men commanding so much wealth, I wouldn't bet on it), but shame and fear of social sanctions will bring down the asking-price of those that there are.  Our man will, of course, be a rampant hypocrite, but we're talking about a guy who places money, status and sex over integrity here.  This goes a long way towards defusing the objections above regarding Hugh Hefner and Bill Clinton, and it suggests a reason for the -- undeniable, but otherwise counter-intuitive -- correlation between economic libertarianism and social conservativism. 

Most feminists, at least the kind of feminists I know, won't have a problem with connecting socioeconomic inequalities to patriarchy.  They'll be asking, instead, how the concept of patriarchy as a male war to control women's bodies improves on the traditional feminist concept of patriarchy as a male pact to control women's bodies.  Besides correcting the implausible implications of Brownmiller's theory of rape, and fitting the historical progression of Western patriarchy as I hope I've demonstrated so far, I think there are a few facts that fit more snugly into this framework than the other. 
  • First, the fact that men are the ones who get sent off to war, or volunteer for it.  This doesn't sit too well with the hypothesis of a conspiracy between males to promote male privilege, as many anti-feminist men are eager to point out.  Nor, as such men seem to imagine, does it easily accommodate the hypothesis of a conspiracy between women to exploit men; a dead man cannot pay for luxury items, real estate, or child support.  But it is readily understood as one form of the struggle between males to monopolize women's bodies at one another's expense. 
  • Second, the fact that the rare women who do attain real power under patriarchal conditions -- think Agrippina, Elizabeth Bathory, or Margaret Thatcher -- often do little or nothing to advance the cause of women.  These women are generally not after women's bodies (Bathory being a distantly possible exception), but seek the power and wealth amassed by patriarchy for other purposes of their own.  If patriarchy were a male conspiracy against women, these women's struggles against men should weaken it; since it is a male war against men, their struggles against men reinforce it. 
  • Third, the portrayal of men in popular culture, especially advertising, as clumsy oafs and morons.  This often happens when the man is doing some kind of "women's work", like cooking a meal or changing a baby, but it's nearly as common with "male" pursuits like fixing cars or building houses.  If the script calls for a loser, the loser is male.  Advertisers can hardly be accused of pandering to women's concerns; the male loser sells because he makes the male viewer a winner by comparison. 
  • Fourth, the perceptions of some men that women are the ones with power.  They are wrong, and often hateful, but they are interestingly wrong.  Rightly perceiving that their struggle against other men doesn't benefit them, and perceiving also that women are the prizes they are fighting for, they wrongly conclude that the women are in control and have deliberately arranged matters that way.  This is where the rape myth, the idea that women who say "no" secretly mean "yes", comes from.  It also seems to be a major source of the idea that women entice rapists by dressing immodestly, as this accusation is very often raised in this context -- "Why else would a woman wear a miniskirt?" 
That last point is worth going over.  I went looking to see if I could find any studies on the actual effect women's choice of clothing has on their risk of being raped.  Among half a dozen or so, precisely one concluded it was significant, and their method turned out to be to take a local opinion poll and report the majority response as fact.  The others did not mention it as a risk factor.  By contrast, being drunk did consistently show up as a risk factor, which means that clothing choices were not ignored out of "political correctness" (it's just as "un-PC" to blame rape on women's drinking).  There's a simple reason why drunk women are at higher risk, of course; rapists, like other predators, seek prey that is weakened and isolated, to save themselves as much effort as possible. 

On the other side, what are the risk factors for becoming a rapist?  Another study links rape to violence and callousness, and also, perhaps more surprisingly, to sexual experience; men who rape begin having sex younger, and have sex with more (consenting) partners, than non-rapists.  What this means is debatable.  Is rape an expression of a stronger sex-drive, along with the willingness to hurt others to fulfil one's own desires?  Or is it that rapists need less personal connection in their sex partnerships and therefore have more one-night stands? 
Neither hypothesis contradicts the established fact that only violent and callous men become rapists, but they make different predictions on some specifics.  If the strong-sex-drive idea is true, then we would not expect rapists to be choosy about their victims, which would show up in studies of the risk factors for becoming a rape victim -- differences of opportunity for the perpetrator would dominate.  On the low-personal-connection hypothesis, any particular rapist might well have specific criteria for choosing victims, and while these would be idiosyncratic it's likely some might crop up repeatedly.  As of now I don't have the data to pick a winner here. 
Well, if rape victims don't bring the attack on themselves by their choice of clothing, whence the widespread myth that they do?  Recall that men who internalize the sexual purity taboo, and then find their feelings straying in directions it forbids, frequently blame the subjects of those feelings.  When most men in a society either share those taboos or (as we've seen) hypocritically benefit from spreading them, the idea of blaming women for men's desires tends to get spread as well.  This is the source of the "virgin / whore" dichotomy that feminists find so tiresome. 

It's true that men in general experience powerful visual sexual attractions.  It's not true that these attractions drive us to act without our choice.  It's also not true that they are restricted to a narrow range of stimuli -- that there is just one thing called "attractiveness" which a few privileged women have.  Not that that stops some hateful men from burping out their opinions of female public figures' looks, but that's easily understood as an operation of patriarchy: these men are trying to control women's bodies, in the sense of decreeing which ones shall be allowed to cross their visual field.  But here we encounter a puzzle.
I remember when the "Sex and the City" movie came out, seeing the torrent of sheer hate on forum after forum and blog after blog -- not because it was boring or poorly scripted, or had dodgy moral implications, but because Sarah Jessica Parker has a slightly longer face and heavier jaw-line than is usual for women in Hollywood.  And I'm afraid the great majority of the anger came from women.  People who criticize others' looks say that looking "good" is about boosting one's self-worth, which merely begs the question why anyone would invest their self-worth into a value which is the definition of superficial.  What's going on here? 
When Ashley Judd earlier this year found herself on the receiving end of a similar wave of scorn due to the effects of some medications, she wrote an article at the Daily Beast attributing this endless scrutiny to what she termed "patriarchy", but apparently a fairly different conception of patriarchy from the one I've been building up here:
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient.  Patriarchy is not men.  Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate.  It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women.  It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.  This abnormal obsession with women's faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times -- I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly.  We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women. 
It wouldn't be the only way women have enforced patriarchal values on other women.  In cultures with sex purity taboos, it's primarily mothers who police them on their daughters.  As Andrea Dworkin and others have noted, this is the only realistic option in a world where all your hopes depend on winning the favour of powerful men.  But you wouldn't expect women to go very much further than men in their condemnation.  Men are just as guilty of focusing on women's looks instead of their ideas -- but women inspect each other in much greater detail.  How does this, on my model, reflect a conflict between men over women's bodies? 

Fashion and glamour advertising is clearly intended to sell products by getting women to feel dissatisfied with their looks, but that wouldn't work if most women didn't wish they looked more like models.  When was the last time you saw a glamour photo showing tummy rolls, or sagging breasts, or aging skin, or natural body hair?  If this is a competition, the prize isn't male desire; you can quite easily find any of the above in pornography.  But is this a competition, exactly?  Generally it's men, not women, who compete for the sake of competing.  And male competitions always have one thing that this one lacks: a criterion for deciding the winner (whether that's "revs per second" or "point score" or "dollars" or, more directly, "inches"). 
When I was a child in the 1980s, the fashions of the 1950s were out-of-date, but they had a certain faded, stuffy dignity; only old people would wear those clothes, but on old people they looked fine.  In 2012, no such dignity has accrued to the fashions of the '80s, or of the '70s or '60s for that matter -- and we are increasingly realizing that the '90s were ridiculous as well.  I've no space here to speculate why, even if I knew where to start.  The point is that, for most of the last fifty years, anyone who thought they had discovered a principle of objective elegance in contemporary fashion was kidding themselves.  I don't see that anything has changed recently. 
Calling it a "social construct" does not illuminate anything much; money is a social construct, but which one out of me and Warren Buffett has more of it is not a matter of opinion.  Fashion critics might be compared to "expert" wine-tasters, who -- for all their great airs of knowledge and sophistication -- do no better than chance at identifying wines when tested blind.  In both, the real aim is to follow the moving goalpost of the most prestigious tastes. 
While women undeniably invest far more of their time, energy, and self-esteem in their appearance than men do, this appears to be the case only in modern Western or Westernized societies.  In tribal societies men decorate themselves at least as highly for gatherings as women; in traditional patriarchal states women are generally dressed down and kept out of sight.  In Shakespeare it's men who criticize one another's doublets and garters.  Even as late as Jane Austen, women strive mainly to excel at music, art, needlework, and conversation, and, tacitly, to be sexually pure; beauty is conceived as something innate and unalterable. 
My best guess at an explanation is this.  When women began to enter public life a century or so ago, they faced a roaring tide of thoughtless contempt from men who'd grown up judging women solely as sexual prizes.  The easiest -- easiest? least difficult -- way for a woman to move forward in that world was to be visually striking.  You'd think that, as women began to filter into prestigious positions, newcomers would have less need to contend for male attention; unfortunately, the alternative was to win the approval of women who had internalized an arbitrary "beauty" code intended to second-guess male whims (one thing the human brain, of either gender, is particularly bad at is recognising patternlessness).  Each new entrant gave the system more spurious legitimacy, and it doesn't look like running out of momentum any time soon. 

I haven't covered non-Western patriarchies because I don't know much about them, but one possible challenge to my thesis must be mentioned which is not found in the West in any great degree: the practice of killing baby girls at birth.  Why would men competing over female bodies cut off their own future supply?  In fact, this is a feature of societies in which women either are claimed in marriage by higher-ranking men (so that the highest-ranking families have no-one to pass them off to) or else become servants of their husbands' families.  In either case, remember that patriarchy is about controlling women; girls are killed when their fathers know they have no option of controlling them. 

I was going to follow all that up with a discussion of where patriarchy comes from, what aspects of human nature it draws upon, and what we can do about it, but this is all getting excessively lengthy, so I think I shall publish this now, and save all that for a Part 2. 


  1. Patriarchy is not a war of men against women; it is a war of men against men, in which women's bodies are the spoils.

    Why can't it be both?

    I phrased that in kind of a joking way, but I'm also serious.

    I agree with you that rape is something that rapists do for themselves, not the benefit of other men.

    So far from joining forces in any kind of conspiracy, men in such cultures jealously struggle to block other men's access to "their" women -- which necessarily entails preventing the women themselves from socializing freely. Hence, in practice, women enjoy all the rights and status of livestock.

    So the motive is to keep other men from accessing women's bodies--or in other words, to keep "their" women from accessing other men's bodies--which, to me, means that it can be looked at as both a war against women and a war against men. And the phrasing, "women's bodies as the spoils" gets the idea across, but it's a shorthand that could lead to some confusion or forgetfulness of what all the goals are. Because as you make clear in that quote, it's not just having access to women's bodies that's the goal, it's preventing other men from getting access. And in societies where a great deal of resource accumulation to individual men is possible (not hunter-gatherers) it's also accumulating the resources to be able to have a bunch of wives/concubines. Which includes having the resources to provide for the wives and the resulting children. And in order to maintain control of the wives, it's more beneficial for the man to control the resources and then give them to the wife and her children than for the wife to acquire them herself (not to mention that the freedom necessary for the wife to go out and acquire resources means more opportunity to access other men's bodies.). So there are real advantages, for a man looking to prevent other men from accessing "his" women, to making his war against women as well as men.

    And the danger of rape can be talked up by these men to try to control women, just as the danger of, say, bears outside the village could, even though the rapists are no more attacking for these men's benefit than the bears are.

    1. Well, that's largely a matter of perspective, of course. I do agree that patriarchy often, in practice, means direct attacks on women's liberty or persons; many other writers have spoken of that with far more expertise than me. Where I feel analysts have been weak up until recently is in supposing that the men were colluding to keep women as a class under the thumb of men as a class. But your final paragraph, in particular, is right on the money, and that's a point I really should have included.