As I listened to the arguments in the Mississippi abortion rights case on Dec. 1, a friend texted me to say, “God but they just hate us, don’t they?” And while hatred of women—what is often referred to as misogyny—is alive and well, it is undergirded by something else that is both less tangible and more terrifying.
The late, great feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote about this as women’s “otherness” in a world of gender binaries and gendered power created by (and for) men. For Beauvoir, the core of sexism is this denial of women’s subjectivity: She is not self to herself but an object for male definition.
In that sense, it is not simply or only “hatred” that motivates the sexists of the world, but the very desire to define and therefore to control.
How else to explain young men at, say, frat parties wanting to have sex with (e.g. rape) women who are literally not present, passed out from too much alcohol. To do this—to want this—one first needs to imagine women as both object (not fully human) but also as there in the world primarily for you, a man.
And here, we can see how the attacks on reproductive rights are connected with the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment: the male expectation that women are there (exist) largely for their pleasure and use—be it use as sexual objects, wifely helpmates, motherly providers of care and comfort. Both sexual assault and the denial of reproductive bodily autonomy say to women: You are here for me. Because if women are fully self-determined—can determine when and if they have children, when and with whom they have sex—then they cannot be there, fully, inevitably, without their own desire, for you. For a man.
The fear of women’s autonomy and self-actualization—the desire for us not to call the shots on our own lives—is then less about some visceral hatred but about both dehumanization (Beauvoir’s “other”) and the wish to maintain a system where women are cultivated as objects for male use.
Both the fight for reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom (which includes freedom from sexual assault and harassment) are dependent upon inverting this ethos and insisting that women are there for themselves, subjects in their own right whose needs and desires are expressions of their own unstoppable humanity.