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Beyond Patriarchy: Sexuality and Womanhood in a Man’s World

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We live in a world that thrives on societal norms and stereotypes, and even in 2024, it can come as a shock when men and women inhabit different roles than expected. For women, the battle for sexual autonomy means challenging expectations and breaking out beyond the confines of patriarchy.

Have you ever been stumped by the riddle about a man admitted to the ICU after an accident? The puzzle explains that the surgeon on call refuses to operate, saying the man is their son. But the surgeon is not the man’s father. It may take you a moment to realise that the surgeon is the man’s mother, revealing just how deeply ingrained gender stereotypes are in social consciousness. It’s immediately and inherently assumed that each gender has a specific and immovable position in society; men are encouraged to be dominant and driven to succeed, while women are still expected to become mothers and nurturers of the family.

For women in the modern world, breaking free of gender roles and expectations means unlearning the messages created by a patriarchal society about how women should live their lives, particularly when it comes to expressing and exploring their sexuality. From modesty and motherhood to reclaiming social status, Dr Azzopardi Lane from the Department of Gender and Sexualities at UM’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing explained to THINK what the gender expectations placed upon women in our society are and how these expectations limit their ability to explore their sexuality.

Modesty and Motherhood: Status in Reproduction

The idea of women as sexual beings has been restrained throughout time, and a woman’s sexual experience is limited and labelled as either socially acceptable or unacceptable. ‘We still have a very strong residue of patriarchy in our society,’ Azzopardi Lane expresses, ‘So while men are congratulated and expected to explore their sexuality, women are meant to fit in with this idea of a modest sexuality that exists solely for reproductive purposes.’ This means that a woman’s sexual interaction that exists outside of the drive for procreation is inherently viewed as immoral or against womanhood.

Since traditional notions of female sexuality are tied to motherhood and reproduction, women who explore their sexuality for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment are viewed as immodest, promiscuous, and somehow the antithesis of what a woman should be. Society dictates that women are supposed to be interested in sex only to conceive a child, and pleasure takes a backseat to the demands of child-rearing. This leaves women confined to playing a predetermined role in their sexual experiences, and society frowns upon women who stray from this ideal. ‘Women are seen as incubators until you reach the menopausal stage, and then your importance in society is diminished,’ Azzopardi Lane states. ‘Because of these patriarchal stereotypes, that is what women are supposed to do: procreate.’

‘Women are seen as incubators until you reach the menopausal stage, and then your importance in society is diminished,’ Azzopardi Lane states.

Azzopardi Lane explains that female value and status have historically derived from what women can provide men. With child-rearing tied to status in society, a woman who has a child has value, while women who either struggle to conceive or choose not to have children are othered, stigmatised or discarded. A woman’s role and value in society is her ability to provide an offspring, placing a burden on her ability to freely explore her sexuality. ‘Women are devalued in society, which is why we still view women as a minority,’ Azzopardi Lane explains. ‘Women are less powerful, less privileged, and are given less choice and fewer opportunities compared to men.’ And when women do not abide by the status quo, they lose their status within their social systems.

The Burden of Sexual Expectation

But what are the consequences for women who attempt to break the burden of society’s expectations and take charge of their sexuality? Azzopardi explains that ‘if you don’t have the ability to shut out this social devaluation, it can really affect your self-esteem, where you are expected by your family or social groups to live your life in this very normative way.’ For example, women who decide not to have children might feel like outsiders in their community, particularly when their friends start having children. Women who want to focus on their career or decide not to follow the expected life trajectory of motherhood can be viewed as separate from the social norm, limiting their community networks. But narrowing women’s value to their ability to procreate and believing that motherhood is the goal for all women is a dangerous assumption, particularly given the challenges of accessing sexual health information and resources.

Here in Malta, we have some of the most stringent laws when it comes to accessing medically safe abortions, placing a significant barrier to the strength of women’s voices within the conversation. Ownership of women’s reproductive rights often falls in the hands of politicians, who are usually male and have the authority to make decisions about what interventions are acceptable for women to access. Paradoxically, women bear the brunt of the consequences when it comes to unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, whereas men are often forgotten completely in this discussion and relieved of responsibility. 

Nearly all forms of protection are meant for women, and only condoms prevent the transmission of STIs

Even when it comes to sexual safety and protection, the burden of responsibility falls on women. If we look at the types of contraception presently on the market, nearly all forms of protection are meant for women, and only condoms prevent the transmission of STIs, meaning the options out there for women to safeguard their sexual health are limited. High numbers of STIs like HPV (human papillomavirus) that affect biologically female persons who have sex with biologically male persons show that more education and awareness are needed to provide women with the information they require to explore their sexuality safely. ‘Many people have not had the kind of upbringing where they are taught to use contraception,’ Azzopardi Lane expresses, ‘And there is ignorance and a lot of shame when it comes to getting tested for STIs. There is still so much that needs to be taught, and so much social awareness needs to be built.’

Breaking Away from Patriarchy

It goes back to undoing this idea of gender roles and expectations and patriarchal assumptions of what women are supposed to do in society.

Prof. Azzopardi Lane

Outdated gender roles demand that we align ourselves with the specific positions society has allocated, and those who unbind themselves from these roles can find themselves ousted, stigmatised, and suffering a loss of social status. Even though patriarchy still rigs the odds to favour men, women around the world continue to shatter the glass ceiling and carve space for themselves in male-dominated positions. Initiatives in Malta, like the She Can campaign, celebrate women who are breaking barriers in STEM and provide much-needed representation and visibility to inspire young women to pursue their goals despite gender biases. ‘It goes back to undoing this idea of gender roles and expectations and patriarchal assumptions of what women are supposed to do in society,’ Azzopardi Lane believes. This begins by challenging patriarchal notions of what spaces women should inhabit in society, from politics and commerce to sports and the sciences. When there is more representation of women existing and succeeding in spheres that are typically considered male domains, it breaks traditional notions of what women can do and where they belong within our social fabric. This also means seeing women as more than their reproductive capabilities and evolving from traditional notions of gender and sexuality to respecting women for their full range of aspirations and abilities. 

Azzopardi Lane also believes that men need to be proactive about understanding the dichotomy between gender roles and the disadvantages women experience as a result of social norms. Ultimately, it is not just women who suffer under gender roles and stereotypes; the patriarchal foundations of our society also place restraints on how men should act and look and what they should strive for. When society moves beyond patriarchy, and people are freed from the restraints of gender roles and expectations, the potential of human achievement becomes boundless, and our society becomes more diverse, inclusive, and equal.

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