Madonna vs. Whore

Having been raised in a conservative Christian family, I’ve observed sexism and the objectification of women from two different vantage points; a photograph and its negative.

In much of conservative Christianity, it is taught that women are to “remain silent” in the church. They are not allowed leadership positions, most certainly can not be ordained as pastors, and are to “submit” to their husbands, who are “the head of the family.” Men are discouraged from being alone with other women in professional settings, which means having their wives along for any meetings, and this mindset puts women in a perpetual state of sexual objectification. (Try to imagine the reverse, where a woman brings her husband along to a professional meeting with a man.) This is necessary, they say, because men are viewed as unable to control themselves with women (either she will seduce him or he will seduce her). There is no professionalism—even in an office setting she is still first and foremost, a sex object (rather than a person and a colleague).

In marriage, she is expected to always keep her figure and be as physically attractive to her husband as possible. She is discouraged from withholding sex, as this would be seen as a “weapon” or a “punishment” to him during times of marital strain, making him vulnerable to the temptation of adultery or porn (read: if he cheats, it’s her fault for holding out). But when do these marriage books and speakers and seminars ever instruct the husband to remain physically attractive and to not withhold sex during conflict? Instead, the burden of healthy sexual relations in a marriage is placed squarely on the wife’s shoulders, first and foremost.

This leaves wives in an interminable state of anxiety about their physiques and libido. Any imperfections in her body, any weight gain she can’t shake, too many nights without intimacy, and she fears he will eventually have an affair with a more attractive woman. Doesn’t matter how imperfect he is, or how much weight he might have put on, that “more attractive” woman is still going to be waiting in the wings somewhere. But when do we ever hear about women leaving their husbands for “more attractive” men or a “younger model”? Now, that’s not to say they don’t, only that it’s seldom mentioned—by anyone.

A woman’s primary role in marriage, therefore, is as a sex object. Everything revolves around the marriage bed. She is a sex provider who is to be in constant submission to her husband, who is her “authority” and “head.” In the church she is also to be in submission to the male leadership, with the understanding that she will always be considered a potential seductress to them, so be wary. And if she dresses in an arbitrarily-deemed immodest way, she is to blame for his lust and lack of self control.

Contrast this to the secular, liberal world where we find the obverse:

In this realm women are exploited in pornography, on billboards, and in innumerable ads in which everyday objects are sexualized by her mere presence (like a model posing on the hood of a car). In Top 40 music videos women dance around in thongs, breasts bulging out, while all the men are dressed in regular, unrevealing clothing (jeans and a jacket much of the time). She is once again, first and foremost, a man’s sex toy or bling. In a professional setting we see the same dynamics as mentioned above (power differentials and sexual assault), but it’s merely without the chaperoning.

What’s the difference between these two worlds?

The main difference I see is that in far right Christianity her objectification has been whitewashed with religion. She is to dress modestly (“modest is hottest”), but be a total sex kitten in the bedroom.

Now, many would say women are treated with greater respect in the church, but if you look at the statistics, this seems to be a fantasy virtue: Adultery and the use of pornography is high in the church too, as well as rates of sexual assault. And at base, is it respectful to treat women as only slightly above children on the hierarchal tier, not fit for leadership roles?

This ideological burden of believing her primary worth is in her physique, is something men just aren’t strapped with—on the contrary, they’ve always taken pride in their brains and level of success. Sure, there are lots of men caught up in fitness and body dysmorphia too, but not in the ubiquitous and pervasive way that women and girls are (and always have been). Even in war and terrorism we see the same dynamic: girls are raped, boys are turned into child soldiers.

In Hollywood films–microcosms of society–it is completely normal for middle-aged men to date women in their 20s/30s. You never see this in reverse. You don’t even see middle-aged men dating middle-aged women; she’s always younger. He can have many fine lines in his face (character lines!) and grey streaks in his hair, but she can’t have a single one (when it’s a romantic role). And while it’s not uncommon, particularly in comedies, for overweight men to score model women, you never see overweight women scoring model men. The overweight male actor in such a romance is revered for his charm and personality above all else, while the woman is revered for her perfect body.

What’s more, in both TV shows and films, women sleep with makeup on yet never awaken with raccoon-eyes (as they would in real life). They instead magically wake up with a fresh coat. This is because a woman’s bare (natural) face is unacceptable on screen. Exceptions only seem to occur when they want her to look tired, sick, or traumatized—because apparently that’s how our natural faces look.

But the reality is that only 1 in 10 women look like models (if even that many). The majority of women do not have perfect figures. Many don’t even apply makeup very well, let’s be honest (it can be clownish, cakey, uneven). So this means that the majority of men are actually falling in love with women who have flawed figures and mediocre looks. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. And while some men do have affairs with women who are more attractive than their wives, this is a more of a rich man / celebrity thing. Regular men having affairs are cheating on their wives with women who are equally (and sometimes even more so) physically as imperfect as their wives.

So what then? Affairs are about so much more than sex; contrary to popular opinion. Beautiful women get cheated on all the time. And when you really think about it, who would want to be universally attractive anyway? To know that most men looking at you are sexually attracted? [Ew. Shudder.] Being normal in looks means you can go about in public without everyone staring at you and lusting after you. Sure, there will still be the occasional man attracted, but that’s impossible to guess (unless he’s being obvious about it) since everyone has different tastes. What’s more, many people don’t develop sexual attraction to another until they’ve first grown attracted to their personality (and then desire grows out of that). This is one of the reasons why some men/women leave their spouse for someone who is less physically attractive. But I digress.

Being “normal” in looks is therefore, in its own way, an advantage. Nevertheless, the objectification of women remains rampant. So, what is our take home?

If we, as women, continue to internalize/tolerate the view that we are just ornamental sex objects above all else, it is in fact the same as agreeing: we objectify ourselves. It’s time for us to openly disagree, and to present ourselves to the world as equal human beings whose looks are completely incidental to our value and worth as persons and colleagues.

The World, both religious and secular, has made Madonna vs. Whores out of all women, in a choose your poison, false dichotomy state of existence.

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Bekah Ferguson

I'm a Christian fiction writer, stay-at-home mom of three, and a bookworm – born and raised in the gorgeous province of Ontario, Canada. My passions include philosophy, psychology, and history, but when it comes to fiction I particularly enjoy cozy murder mysteries (any era), and sci-fi. I'm the author of the contemporary romance novels, A White Rose and When the Fog Cleared (available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle), and co-author of the fantasy novel, The Attic. :) I post short stories of various genres on my blog, and you can follow me on Facebook & Twitter.

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