Janet Radcliffe Richards on the past, present and future of sex

            In the last two centuries, there has been a massive shift in the legal, social and institutional norms surrounding sex – both in terms of women’s rights and regulation of sexual activity.  And, undoubtedly, there will be more such shifts in the future – the sexual norms that emerge in the future may well make even the most strident liberals of today blush.  What to make of this complex and sometimes confusing landscape?  This is the subject of the 2012 Annual Uehiro Lecture Series, entitled ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’ and delivered over the next three weeks by Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards.  The first lecture occurred on November 14 (you can listen to the podcast here and here), with two more to follow on November 21 and 28. 

            This first lecture introduced 19th-century arguments for women’s rights and suggested how this might illuminate contemporary debates.  Radcliffe Richards drew approvingly on the work of John Stuart Mill, an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage, equality in marriage contracts and other rights (see especially The Subjection of Women, first published in 1869).  Mill’s main strategy was not to argue that the conservatives who opposed women’s rights had incorrect first principles or values; rather, he thought that conservatives’ opposition to women’s rights was inconsistent, even assuming their values and presuppositions to be correct.  A common conservative argument (evinced by, for instance, the redundantly-named James Fitz-James Stephen) was that A) women were physically and mentally inferior to men, B) unable due to these inferiorities to carry out various political, legal and economic tasks (such as voting, raising children on their own, taking on various professions, etc.), and C) so can rightfully be banned from them by the law.  Mill noticed that, even if A and B were correct, C did not clearly follow: 1) Even if many or most women cannot perform the relevant tasks, at least some can – and they shouldn’t be excluded from being able to carry them out; 2) The differences could be due to differences in education rather than natural ability, suggesting that instead of banning them from activities there should be education reform; 3) If women are really not able do these things, there’s no reason to legally ban them from doing them; and 4) Generally, when one group is stronger and another weaker, one should not react by letting the strong exercise full control over the weak – one should instead have laws that protect and raise up the weaker party.

            On Radcliffe Richards’ analysis, moreover, Mill was making a point about the standards to which we should hold laws: the laws should not give arbitrary advantage to people on the basis of gender.  Any such discrimination must be principled – and, given the incoherence of the conservatives’ argument, it cannot be said to be based on such principled reason.  This non-arbitrariness principle would allow denial of the uneducated the right to vote because of the value of having an educated electorate (even if the uneducated were disproportionately women), so long as that standard were applied equally to men and women.  The non-arbitrariness rule can certainly help militate in favour of women’s suffrage – but it has other interesting implications today, as it emphasizes equality of consideration rather than equality of outcomes.  So, in the face of higher male incomes, the non-arbitrariness principle would militate against redistributing money from men to women (though it would not necessarily decisively overrule such a policy).

            With this principle in mind, Radcliffe Richards turned to the issue of sexual regulation.  Historically, civilizations have disproportionately condemned and punished women for infidelity and promiscuity compared with men.  This has historically been codified in law, but today the social norm continues – notice how promiscuous women are often called sluts or whores, but promiscuous men are lauded as players or a studs.  Radcliffe Richards thinks this sexual double-standard originated (or at least was ostensibly justified) in part due to an interesting natural power imbalance that favors women: in the absence of social controls, women will always know whether they are the parent of a given child, but men will not.  This is a problem because people only want to devote resources to their true, biological children.  Patriarchal systems that regulate women’s sexuality, then, emerge because men want to correct the imbalance – ensure that a given child is theirs by imposing harsh punishments on women who sleep with anyone but their husband.  But the non-arbitrariness principle can show us how those systems, despite the initial power imbalance that favoured women, are unjustified.  In the first place, the punitive system arbitrarily assumes it is morally problematic for women to have children without being under the auspices of men.  And, moreover, it enforces the norm of monogamy by arbitrarily punishing women much more than men; chastity norms and laws would be significantly less objectionable if men were sanctioned as much as women.

            Of course, the conservatives lost the debate over women’s suffrage, equality in marriage contracts and other disputes – leading to significantly greater legal sexual freedom and equality in modern societies.  At the same time, the technological development of the birth control pill in 1963 helped further the separation of sex and reproduction.  Radcliffe Richards characterized these shifts as massive upheavals, leading to an explosion of complex issues and dilemmas that dominate many contemporary discussions.  The discussion touched on some of these changes.  For example, Radcliffe Richards argued that the increase of female doctors and university professors has had the unfortunate negative side-effect of reducing the social status of professions that were historically dominated by women such as nursing and primary school teachers.  That is not to say the expansion of women into more professions was even close to being overall bad – but we should be mindful of the unintended costs of the transition, and try to address them.

Indeed, Radcliffe Richards observed that the system was much simpler under pre-industrial patriarchy – women’s place was clear, and there was no need to question or investigate the complexities surrounding gender and sex.  Now that the worst excesses of institutionalized sexism have been eradicated, however, it is a difficult and important challenge to address the plethora of new and remaining issues in a clear-eyed way.  Radcliffe Richards will discuss at least some of these challenges in her next two lectures, taking up the question of how different, really, are the sexes, as well as how a big shift in metaphysics has radically changed how we think about these issues.

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