Madonna or whore; frigid or a slut: why women are still bearing the brunt of sexual slurs

Senator David Leyonhjelm’s sexist slur on Senator Sarah Hanson-Young during parliamentary debate raises many issues about how women’s credibility can be undermined by implications that they are sexually more active than is deemed “acceptable”.\r\n\r\n

Senator David Leyonhjelm’s sexist slur on Senator Sarah Hanson-Young during parliamentary debate raises many issues about how women’s credibility can be undermined by implications that they are sexually more active than is deemed “acceptable”.


This is a long-standing tactic, based on sexist assumptions that women can be classified as either Madonna or whore, frigid or slut: something Australian feminist Anne Summers wrote about so powerfully in her book Damned Whores and God’s Police. In it, Summers quoted Caroline Chisholm’s belief that the colony needed “good and virtuous women”. The misuse of female sexuality has more recently been rebadged as “slut shaming”, which in turn created its own feminist protests by women engaging in “slut walks” as a means of reclaiming the term as a positive.

As academic and author Jessalynn Keller has written:

The phrase [slut-shaming] became popularized alongside the SlutWalk marches and functions similarly to the “War on Women,” producing affective connections while additionally working to reclaim the word “slut” as a source of power and agency for girls and women.

In this spirit, Hanson-Young has hit back. Leyonhjelm has refused to apologise for his comments, and Hanson-Young is now seeking further action. “I have a responsibility now, I have a responsibility to call this for what it is,” she told ABC radio. She said Leyonhjelm had suggested she was “sexually promiscuous”. She continued:

He is — for lack of a better word, and I really apologise for this, I’m thankful that my daughter is home in bed still and not up for school — he’s slut-shaming me.

This conflict arose from one of the many debates raised by the astounding successes of the #metoo movement, which has exposed women’s widespread experiences of sexual harassment and bullying.

The wider debate records what are obviously very long-standing differences of criteria applied to women’s behaviour as opposed to men’s. Despite it being nearly 70 years since publication of another classic feminist tome, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, women are still seen as Other, and defined by powerful male criteria.

Whereas men’s virtues are often seen as multiple and universal, those seen as relating to women are still tied to outdated moral codes that assume our sexual behaviour is the primary indicator of who we are.

While sexual prowess and multiple “conquests” may be indicators of men’s approved masculinity, women may lose legitimacy if they are deemed promiscuous by having multiple partners.

There is no doubt men’s active sexuality is deemed acceptable and often excused as driven by physical needs, but women are still criticised for leading men on or astray. In other words, not only can’t women win in terms of their own sexuality and how it is somehow tied to their moral character, they are often asked, implicitly or explicitly, to take responsibility for men’s sexual behaviour too.

The so-called sexual revolution, catalysed by the availability of reliable female contraception in the 1960s, does not seem to have freed women in the same way it freed men. Interestingly, there is still no male pill that would reduce the risks for women, so we still carry that responsibility far too often.

All of this raises questions of how far real equality for women has come. I often quote a 1970s badge that read “women who want equality with men lack ambition”. We wanted to change what was valued and by whom, to balance the emphasis on macho material goals, tastes, attitudes and ambitions.

Current evidence suggests that, despite having more women in the senior ranks of most institutions, these are still there as parvenus, subjected to male criteria of what they think matters.

So women who do not fit the designated behaviour of Madonnas or whores are likely to be targeted for sledging. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard copped it and there is no evidence the culture has improved.

For his part, Leyonhjelm is unrepentant. When asked whether his reaction was too personal, regardless of what he thought Hanson-Young, he said:

I think you’re being way too precious. If you’re a woman of 36, unless you’re celibate, it might be a reasonable assumption that you’re shagging men occasionally. It’s a legitimate assumption and I simply made that assumption.

This just reinforces the idea that she is promiscuous, which he must know will reduce her wider credibility. It is an oddly puritanical comment, given he claims to be libertarian.

Many politicians have taken issue with Leyonhjelm’s comments, though it is perhaps in part a result of the general debasing of parliamentary debate in recent years. Let’s hope the public outrage over this particular incident will create some push-back against vocal sexist slurs against women, in parliament and in broader society.

Eva Cox, Professorial Fellow, Jumbunna IHL, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.