The bodies and humanities of women are intensely and deliberately politicised in several ways: the criminalisation of abortion in many countries including Nigeria, the criminalisation and ostracism of sex workers (but giving of amnesty to the men who patronise them), the criminalisation of women’s sexuality in terms of dressing however we like and having sex whenever we want — before or in marriage — in certain countries, and sexualization.

Sexualization is the act of making something sexual. Many of — let me be specific here and name something what it really is — the female body parts that we have made sexual are not exclusively or inherently sexual organs. For example, breasts are simply mammary glands. They are organs that secrete milk and exist innately for the nutrition of children. So why is it that every time people see naked (female) breasts, they view it with sexual lenses and pretend to be repulsed? Why are naked breasts seen as vulgar and sinful?

Why is the subject of sex, the reason that many of us are here, considered vulgar?

It is obvious, if we think about it deeply, that sexualization exists only for women. There are men with far bigger breasts than an average woman’s, and yet, nobody thinks of it as odd, immoral, or shameful when said men show their breasts. What is the great difference between the female nipple and the male nipple, that causes only the female nipple to be so sexualized and shameful? It surely cannot be the milk that the female’s produces, can it? And yet, it is only a problem when a woman decides to show hers. Nearly every part of a woman’s body, in different regions in the world, is sexualized. Our stomachs, backs, arms, legs, even our faces.

 the female body parts that we have made sexual are not exclusively or inherently sexual organs. For example, breasts are simply mammary glands. They are organs that secrete milk and exist innately for the nutrition of children. So why is it that every time people see naked (female) breasts, they view it with sexual lenses and pretend to be repulsed? Why are naked breasts seen as vulgar and sinful?

Sexualization is shaming, and shaming is control.

We must note that women being sexual at all, is and has always been considered an abomination, if we are not being sexual in the premises of marriage — the only condition on which a woman can be sexual without being shamed or judged is if she is married. We must also refer to the fact that marriage between heterosexual people is an institution that exists inherently to benefit men. In a heterosexual marriage, the idea is that the woman “leaves her home” to go and be one with the man. This is demonstrated in many ways: women leaving their families to move in with their husbands, women renouncing their original surnames and, instead, taking their husband’s, women giving birth to children whose surnames will be that of their father. In a heterosexual marriage, particularly in Nigeria, the woman is sold to the man. She becomes his property, and this is demonstrated in the concept of bride price/dowry.

A married woman is her husband’s and all her sexuality belongs to him. This is why society frowns against (and greatly punishes) women being sexual, when they are not giving their sexuality to their husbands. Marriage is the only exemption in which women are allowed to be sexual beings. Single women who have sex with their boyfriends are punished by society through ostracism, degradation, shame, and being viewed as “used” or “unclean” because they have lost their “virginities”. They get religious holy book verses thrown at them, they get told by parents and “well-meaning” outsiders that they have lost their morals for “few minutes of fornication”, they get mocked by misogynistic men and women. Oddly enough, there is usually no castigation for the boyfriends.

In a heterosexual marriage, the idea is that the woman “leaves her home” to go and be one with the man. This is demonstrated in many ways: women leaving their families to move in with their husbands, women renouncing their original surnames and, instead, taking their husband’s, women giving birth to children whose surnames will be that of their father.

Likewise, sex workers are usually the ones who get shamed, vilified, ostracised, and incarcerated in a relationship between a sex worker and a patron. As if the sex worker had put a rope around the patron’s (who is usually male) neck and forced him to have sex with her and pay afterwards. As if it is not patrons who usually seek out and suggest the sexual services. As if it is not demand that brings about supply.

Women are punished for everything.

We live in a misogynistic world, and it is imperative to understand that misogyny is not just saying “I hate women.” Misogyny is holding women to harsher and unfair standards, it is judging women far more harshly than is required, it is the regulation and policing of our bodies, our behaviours and our humanities, through shame, threat of incarceration, ostracism, and loss of opportunity.

Apart from how harmful it is to view women as only objects of sex, because this is one of the reasons why men grope, rape, (and oftentimes in the process harm and kill us) at will, sexualizing women is a very effective form of control. Women’s sexuality is shamed, so sexualizing us shames us even further, even worse. From childhood we are made to believe that our bodies are things to be ashamed of; little girls are scolded and taught to close their legs and to wear “decent” clothes. In Cameroon, mothers are ironing the breasts of their daughters in order to prevent them from growing, so that adult men will not be attracted to little girls’ small breasts — sexualization is violence.

I am a university student. The theatre I have my lectures in is always hot and stuffy because there are just always so many people in it. I wish I could wear my light tops, so that I can feel some breeze and I would feel less hot while receiving lectures. But I cannot, because I am a girl and my body is so brutally sexualized that my shoulders and arms being bare is a problem. Because of this, I am forced to wear “decent” clothes — at my expense.

it is imperative to understand that misogyny is not just saying “I hate women.” Misogyny is holding women to harsher and unfair standards, it is judging women far more harshly than is required, it is the regulation and policing of our bodies, our behaviours and our humanities, through shame, threat of incarceration, ostracism, and loss of opportunity.

Sexualization is also one of the reasons that there is need for a “perfect victim” in the case of a sexual assault. The perfect victim is the victim that wasn’t hanging out with boys, wasn’t out late at night, wasn’t wearing indecent clothes. Anything short of those instances, especially the clothes part, and she is blamed. “What were you doing with them?” “Why were you out at that time?” “You wore that kind of outfit and you expected nothing to have happened/You should have dressed better!” And so on. What do clothes have to do with assault? How does bare skin call for assault? And this is where it becomes control, social control in this case. You are either the girl that “dresses well” and covers all the female body parts that society has chosen to sexualize, because society wants you to keep yourself for the man that will later own you, or you are the whore that has done something to deserve being raped.

Rape is peddled as the consequence of not abiding by this particular rule of patriarchy; that the sexualized body parts of girls are women must be covered and hidden and ashamed of. When you are ashamed of something, you hide it. When you hide it, it can be kept for the person who is designated to own it — and you — in future. When you abide by the rules of patriarchy, patriarchy is successfully upheld. Sexualization is an effective causal agent of shame. Shame is a tool of control. And therefore, sexualization in itself is control.

Photo by Dellon Thomas from Pexels

Omotoyosi Salami
She is a poet and writer living in Lagos, Nigeria. A lot of her writing is influenced by the various inequalities that exist in her country and her culture - Yoruba - and its traditions. Her work have been published in Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, and Constellation Journal. If you do not find her reading a book, you will find her writing something. She is on Twitter as @HM_Omotoyosi.