Sex Slavery Revisited

In 1890, anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre published Sex Slavery, a short speech in defense of Moses Harman, a women’s rights supporter who was prosecuted under Comstock law for publishing allegedly obscene material. De Cleyre argued that in her society, women were viewed as the property of their husbands, and had little power over their own bodies and destinies. Today, women still have to fight for the right to self-ownership, in a society dominated by alpha males with little respect for women’s bodies or minds. Although Sex Slavery was written 125 years ago, its message remains relevant in our culture of male entitlement, victim-blaming, and omnipresent gender roles.

When de Cleyre used the phrase “sex slavery,” she was referring to laws that existed at the time permitting men to rape their wives as well as cultural expectations regarding the way women should dress, behave, and generally carry themselves. She wrote that married women were essentially kept as sex slaves for their husbands, expected to put on a costume of personal purity and righteousness, while at the same time submitting sexually whenever their husbands so desired. Marital rape became illegal shockingly recently. Most rape laws included a marital exemption until the mid-1970s. The last states to remove the marital exemption from their rape laws, Oklahoma and North Carolina, did so in 1993. There continue to be differences in the way unmarried and married rape are treated in thirteen states, with spousal rape requiring some element of escalation beyond non-consent, such as violence or personal injury. In the case of South Carolina, marital rape must be reported within 30 days of the incident for it to go to court.

De Cleyre noted two reasons that marital rape was so widely accepted: “the mind domination of the church and the body domination of the State.” Male entitlement in the United States is largely rooted in residual puritanical culture, reminiscent of America’s religious past. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 says, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does… Do not deprive one another…so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” This passage excuses marital rape from being a moral wrong and stresses that married people have the duty to submit to each other sexually, lest the other partner loses self-control and commits adultery.

The idea of men not being able to control themselves is ever prevalent today and shifts blame from the rapist to the raped. Men are viewed as lust-driven animals, incapable of keeping their hands to themselves. In classrooms, young girls are forced to cover their bodies as though they were dirty because they are “distracting the boys” — boys who just cannot control themselves in the presence of female skin. At the time de Cleyre wrote Sex Slavery, the Comstock law was frequently used to suppress feminist speech as “obscene.” Other feminists who fell victim to Comstock law included Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. Although obscenity laws are much more relaxed today, the concept of the human body being obscene remains. When a woman is raped, questions like “Why did she drink so much?” and “What was she wearing?” abound; Questions that should be irrelevant when the real question is, “Did all parties consent?” Rapists are excused because “men can’t help it” and women are blamed for showing too much skin in a culture that still relies on puritanical norms that have long been outdated, as the mind domination of the church maintains its grip on society.

The body domination of the State also reinforces rape culture and male dominance. In Sex Slavery, de Cleyre specifically criticized those who asked, “why didn’t she leave?” in cases of domestic rape and abuse. The state systematically reinforces privilege by controlling who can work where (mandatory union membership, licensing, employee documentation, zoning, etc.), and makes it difficult for people to get themselves out of difficult situations. Additionally, the State asserts ownership over its citizens’ bodies by attempting to control what substances someone puts in their body — whether it be marijuana or birth control without a prescription. The State controls women by limiting their access to contraception and abortion, through regulations that masquerade as “pro-health.” Through gun control laws, the State limits the ways women can defend themselves from men who can most certainly help themselves, but choose to do otherwise. If women do not have total ownership over their own bodies, who does? The State? Men? By removing power from women and placing it in the hands of patriarchal institutions, the State reinforces male power over women.

Much has changed since Voltairine de Cleyre wrote Sex Slavery in 1890. However, the change has not been enough. Women are still not treated as self-owners in our legal system. Men are still viewed as animals that cannot help but have sex with unwilling victims. Women who bear skin are still viewed as sexual and obscene “temptations”. The mind domination of the Church and body domination of the State that de Cleyre warned about continue to plague society and reinforce the patriarchy. In 2015, 125 years later, it’s about damn time we break free from our chains.

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