THE DOUBLE STANDARD
The term "double standard" refers to the fact that we have different norms for the sexual behavior of men and women. That is to say, not only our own, but also most other human societies have long held females to a higher degree of sexual restraint than males. Girls and women have traditionally been severely restricted in their sexual opportunities in order to keep them "pure" and "innocent". Boys and men, on the other hand, have usually been encouraged to "sow their wild oats" as demanded by their "animal nature". By the same token, females have often been punished for the smallest sexual transgression, while males have enjoyed considerable sexual license.
Today the double standard operates largely through indirect social pressure, moral indoctrination, rules of etiquette, customs, manners, and taboos, but in the past it was directly and brutally enforced when men beat or even killed their wives, daughters, or sisters for "improper" sexual behavior. The law, which was made by men, also supported the male view and provided harsh penalties for female adultery and the loss of "virginity" before marriage. Male adulterers and seducers were punished only to the extent that they infringed upon the rights of other men. In other words, women were regarded as male property, i.e., they belonged to their fathers, husbands, or brothers. Thus, if adultery and seduction diminished a woman's value, her master had to be compensated for the damage. For example, in ancient Israel the seducer of a girl had to pay her father "money according to the dowry of virgins" (Exodus 22; 17), and even in 19th century England a husband could still legally demand some financial restitution from the seducer of his wife.
Obviously, then, the double standard involves more than questions of sexual morality, but points to a more fundamental issue. This issue has recently been redefined as "sexism", i.e., an attitude or a philosophy that uses a person's sex as the basis for all sorts of social discrimination. More specifically, modern fighters for women's rights have used the term "male chauvinism" (after a French super-patriot named Chauvin) to describe the fanatical and unreasonable insistence on male privilege.
Unfortunately, male privilege has a long history and is still firmly embedded in all our social institutions. As we have seen, the double standard for sexual behavior originally reflected the truth that men exercised nearly total economic, legal, and sexual power over women. Societies were organized in such a way that women depended on men who made all important decisions. Men held all political, religious, and artistic authority, while women were confined to the domestic sphere and had no voice in public affairs. In short, people lived under a social system known as patriarchy (Greek, literally: "father rule").
I n the meantime, this patriarchal system has, of course, been somewhat modified. Some of its worst excesses have been corrected, but, as women well realize, in principle it has survived to this very day. Indeed, it is still defended by many men as "natural" and inevitable. As proof, they point to a great deal of historical and anthropological evidence which seems to show patriarchy as a universal institution dating back to the earliest ages. However, within the last hundred years this view has repeatedly been challenged by various scholars who claimed that, in some distant past, all of mankind lived under a more benign and humane system of matriarchy ("mother rule"), and that our patriarchal culture is but a sorry deviation from the healthy order of things. In the present context it is not necessary for us to take sides in this controversy, although fairness commands us to state that, so far, no definite proof for the past or present existence of a matriarchal system has been found. What has been found are a number of matrilinear systems, i.e., systems of tracing the family blood line through the mother. This undoubtedly gives women a special status, but does not necessarily imply a socially dominant position. Societies can be matrilinear and patriarchal at the same time.
Still, the once fairly widespread acceptance of matrilinear systems makes an interesting point that may have some relevance here: It is much easier, more "natural", and more accurate to trace the family line through the mother rather than through the father. A baby's mother is never in doubt, while the father may sometimes be hard to determine. It follows that a patrilinear system can work only if women are so closely controlled that all of their pregnancies can be accounted for. Ideally, therefore, they enter marriage as virgins and remain faithful to their spouses. By the same token, a wife's premarital and extramarital affairs are bound to raise questions in her husband's mind about the paternity of his children. He may only be their legitimate and official, but not their biological father. It is true that in some societies husbands do not worry about biological fatherhood and are content with their official role, but in many others, including our own, men have traditionally insisted on raising their "own flesh and blood". However, they could gain this certainty only by restricting female sexual freedom. Consequently, our sexual laws and moral standards have always been stricter for women.
Curiously enough, there have been peoples on this planet (and some of them had survived to the early 20th century) who were unaware of the fact that pregnancies are caused by sexual intercourse. Therefore, for them the whole issue of biological fatherhood could not even arise. Instead, they believed that a woman became pregnant when a spirit entered her body while she was swimming or bathing, or on some other occasion. In other words, for these "primitives" sex and reproduction were unrelated phenomena, although one tribe was found to believe that a man had to feed the growing fetus with his semen through the pregnant woman's vagina.
We do not know at what point in its development the human mind realized the connection between coitus and pregnancy, but we can assume that most societies discovered it a very long time ago. We also know that different societies drew different conclusions from this discovery. Some believed that the female role in reproduction was essential, "because only women can make things grow". The male therefore played merely the role of an assistant who helped matters along. Some societies ascribed equal importance to both sexes, and others regarded the male contribution as decisive. In our Western civilization this latter view eventually became the most widely accepted. The female body came to be regarded as a mere vessel for the male creative fluids. Women were the soil in which men planted their seed ( a concept still preserved in our word "semen" which is Latin for "seed").
Thus, women soon found themselves in an inferior, secondary position. Their children did not really belong to them, but to their male "inseminators", just as the grain harvest belonged to the farmer who had sowed it, and not to the field. Indeed, at times it was even believed that a drop of semen contained a fully formed tiny human being, or homunculus which, after its deposition in the womb, simply grew there like a flower in a flower bed. At any rate, in the entire reproductive process the female was little more than a passive receptacle. She only nourished life, but did not create it. The true creator was male.
This general shift in perception was, of course, also reflected in religious beliefs. Originally, throughout most of the ancient world, people had worshipped some great "Earth Mother" or life-giving goddess of rebirth and fertility, such as Ishtar (in Babylon), Astarte (in Phoenicia), Cybele (in Phrygia), and Isis (in Egypt). However, the functions of these awesome female deities were gradually taken over by male counterparts. For example, among the nomadic Hebrews there arose a new faith that was later incorporated into Christianity and thus dominated much of Western history: the belief in the male god Yahweh who created the world and Adam, the first man. He also created the woman Eve out of Adam's rib to be his companion, but she allowed herself to be seduced by the serpent and thus was the cause of Adam's fall.
Needless to say, once Woman had been stripped of her creative role and had been burdened with the responsibility for Original Sin, her low social status appeared fully justified. In ancient Israel a wife called her husband "lord" ('adôn) or "Master" (ba'al). While he could repudiate her, she had no such right and, in fact, remained legally a minor throughout her life. The Ten Commandments list wives among a man's possessions. Not surprisingly, therefore, in a traditional Jewish prayer men implored God; "... let not my offspring be a girl, for very wretched is the life of woman," and they gladly repeated every day: "Blessed be Thou, o Lord our God, for not making me a woman."
In ancient Greece women fared hardly any better. In early heroic times, Greek women had known some measure of independence, but by the time of Pericles (5th century B.C.) their position had come to resemble that of domestic slaves. An exception was the militaristic state of Sparta, where women enjoyed certain privileges, but, together with men, were subject to lifelong totalitarian regulation. In republican Rome women were also ruled by their fathers or husbands, until they finally became more emancipated in imperial times. The conversion of Europe to Christianity did little for the liberation of women and, indeed, with regard to marriage and divorce, deprived them of rights they had formerly enjoyed. Only in some Northern barbarian countries did the church bring greater sexual equality. However, as a matter of principle, women were still considered inferior. They were respected and welcome in the congregation as long as they remained "modest" and "proper", but had no voice in religious or public affairs. As the Apostle Paul made clear: "But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man. . , . For a man ... is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man" (I Cor. 11; 3-9). Paul then continued: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church" (1 Cor. 14; 34-35).
Thus, in contrast to many older "pagan" religions, Christianity excluded women from the priesthood and other church offices. At the same time, they were also expected to remain subservient to men at home. The only, and rather belated, religious concession to the female sex was the cult of the Virgin Mary which began to flourish during the Middle Ages. Mary, unsullied by sexual experience, has served as God's vessel by bearing his son. Thus, she had contributed to man's salvation and partly redeemed Eve's guilt. In the eyes of the faithful, this gave women a new dignity. The feminine mystique was further enhanced by the invention of courtly love and the cult of chivalry. In poetry and song the troubadours and other sensitive men extolled the virtues of their noble, irreproachable, and largely inaccessible ladies. However, both the Virgin Mary and the "noble lady" of medieval poets stood for fidelity, purity and propriety and thus symbolized only the passive aspect of womanhood. The active, assertive, sensuous aspect was represented by the image of Woman as temptress, a sexually insatiable animal who drained her victims of their life-sustaining fluids and led them to eternal damnation. Here again the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, provided the appropriate ideology. Christian women-haters approvingly quoted Ecclesiastes: "And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her, but the sinner shall be taken by her." (Eccl. 7:26).
This fear of women eventually grew to a point where it led to open aggression. Indeed, more and more women were directly accused of being in league with the devil. They were tortured until they confessed and then burned, hanged, or drowned as witches. In 1486, the Dominican monks Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer explained in their treatise on witchcraft Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer): "What else is a woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, ... an evil of nature, painted with fair colors! . . . Women are intellectually like children ... the natural reason is that woman is more carnal than man. . , . And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. , . . Women also have weak memories; and it is a natural vice in them not to be disciplined." The witch craze raged on for several centuries in both Catholic and Protestant countries and claimed thousands of women as its victims. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment that the fear of female witchcraft stopped haunting the male Christian mind. (See also "Conformity and Deviance, Healthy - Sick".)
The "enlightened" philosophers and writers of the 18th century tried to reduce the female image to more human dimensions. For them, Woman was neither the immaculate saint nor the diabolical seductress, but rather a pleasant and useful companion. They treated her with admiration and courtesy, although only very few of them considered her a natural equal. Actually, Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke for most men of his time when, in Emile (1762), he declared: "The man should be strong and active; the woman . . . weak and passive. . . . Nature herself has decreed that woman . .. should be at the mercy of man's judgment. . . . Works of genius are beyond her reach, and she has neither the accuracy nor the attention for success in the exact sciences. . . . The inequality of man-made laws ... is not of man's making, or at any rate it is not the result of mere prejudice, but of reason." Obviously, in substance this opinion of the female intellect still differed little from that of the earlier witch hunters. Rousseau's "nature" and "reason" were no more natural and reasonable than they had been in the Middle Ages.
Under the circumstances, men saw no logical grounds for giving up the sexual double standard. Thus, as James Boswell recalled in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), the latter unquestioningly defended the patriarchal and patrilineal system when speaking about adultery: "Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it." On the other hand, Dr. Johnson also believed that it was easier for women to be faithful, since he considered their sexual needs less pressing. Women had to be more virtuous than men, because, as he once remarked to Boswell; "Women have not the same temptations that we have: they may always live in virtuous company; men must mix in the world indiscriminately."
Dr. Johnson was, of course, the quintessential bourgeois, and his remark about the lack of temptation for women was, to a certain extent, quite true at the time. The rising bourgeoisie increasingly confined its wives inside the house and locked up its daughters in order to shield them from outside influences. Family life became more intimate and exclusive. Outsiders were asked to respect family privacy and the "sanctity of the home". As a result, women became more dependent and domesticated than ever before. Indeed, within the next century, their lives became so restricted that they often gave the impression of being small-minded, incompetent, and devoid of passion. Thus, in a complete reversal of their earlier image, women eventually came to be regarded as less "carnal" than men. Without fear of contradiction, the Victorian English "sex expert" Sir William Acton, in his study The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1875), therefore reassured his male readers: "... the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind-----The best mothers, wives, and managers of households, know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions they feel."
Undoubtedly, not only Victorian men, but also many women accepted this "scientific" opinion as accurate. If they themselves did not quite seem to fit the stereotype, they sought the fault in themselves and tried to correct, or at least, conceal it. Still, this sexual oppression and self-oppression also made many of them unhappy and even ill, as became evident in the numerous incidents of female "hysteria" towards the end of the century. However, outside the sexual sphere, some middle-class women had long become more demanding. The French Revolution of 1789 had raised female hopes for full legal equality, and although these hopes were subsequently dashed, a number of feminists had kept battling on for women's right to vote. As a matter of fact, in Acton's time the fight for women's suffrage was already well under way in both Europe and America. Most "suffragettes" were sexually "proper" and "respectable" women, but they were no longer content with their domestic roles. And they were not alone. As more and more women developed a political consciousness, they learned to resent their inferior status. This, in turn, helped them realize that not only social discrimination, but also the sexual double standard had to be abolished, and that both males and females would be the better for it. In short, women began to see that there could be no true political, economic, and sexual morality until they were fully emancipated. The fight against sexual inequality thus became a fight for a more just, more humane society. By freeing themselves, women would also free their oppressors. This basic feminist belief was, over the years, articulated again and again, but it was perhaps best summarized early in the 19th century by the French social utopist Charles Fourier who had said: "The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation."