Why Men Hate Women

new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

Why men hate women
'...And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat....' And we all know what happened then - or do we? '
Celia Kitzinger throws new light on an old story.

It almost certainly wasn't an apple in the Garden of Eden. The Genesis story refers simply to 'forbidden fruit' and biblical scholars argue that a quince or a fig was more likely.

But in mediaeval woodcuts, on stained-glass windows and in classical Christian art, the apple symbolizes the first sin and Eve is portrayed as the first sinner. Eve the temptress, created by a male deity, formed from the rib of Adam, later to cause the fall of 'man' from grace and innocence - this patriarchal myth of woman underpins Western culture.

In casting woman and serpent as evildoers, Judaic writers overturned a powerful earlier tradition which associated both with wisdom and fertility. In the ancient goddess religions, snakes were the special companions of women, symbols of sexuality, linked through the shedding of their skins - which was seen as a form of rebirth - with women's creative and reproductive powers. Early Mediterranean statues and reliefs depict fecund goddesses with great nourishing breasts, generous hips and bellies ripe with pregnancy, often with serpents entwined sensuously about their bodies.

Appalled by this pagan tradition, the authors of Genesis converted the sensual, fertile goddess into a shameful sinner. They covered her nakedness with an apron of fig leaves, and punished her sexuality with pain and oppression: 'In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee'.

The myth was used by early churchmen as a vehicle for expressing their horror and disgust at women's bodies: 'What is the difference whether it is in a wife or in a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any other woman,"1 wrote St Augustine in the late fourth century. Projecting all guilt upon women, branding them as lustful allies of the Devil who wean men from God and lead them from the path of virtue, the Genesis story enshrines the myth of feminine evil as a justification for female oppression.

Terrifying hatred
The history of Western men's attitudes to women is a history of woman-hatred, often with terrifying consequences. During the European witch hunts, thousands of women were tortured and murdered when woman-as-Eve was transformed into woman-as-witch. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum - a document produced by two Dominican monks who were appointed by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 to investigate and stamp out witchcraft - states that 'all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable'. The charges levelled against witches included every misogynistic sexual fantasy harboured by the monks and priests who officiated over the witch hunts: witches copulated with the devil, devoured new-born babies and rendered men impotent. A whole chapter of Malleus is entitled: How, as it were, they Deprive Man of his Virile member'.2

Witches were also accused of using herbs to ease the pain of labour at a time when the Church held that pain in childbirth was the Lord's punishment for Eve's original sin. The Inquisitors concluded: 'Blessed be the Most High who has so far preserved the Male sex from so great a crime.'2

This virulent loathing of women's bodies continued during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the West: any expression of sexual desire by women was considered filthy, corrupt, sinful and marked them as whores, the daughters of Eve. Upper- and middle-class Victorian men relied on working-class female prostitutes to satisfy their sexual appetites, while demanding the purity of their wives and inflicting upon them the impossibly sentimentalized and saintly ideal of the Virgin Mother.

Middle-class women and girls who expressed sexual feelings - with men or through masturbation - were often diagnosed as 'morally insane' and imprisoned in mental asylums. Others were 'cured' through sexual surgery, including clitoridectomy or 'female circumcision', which doctors first practised on indigent American women and black female slaves.

These same physicians continued a long tradition of viewing menstruation as dirty and dangerous, 'the curse' inflicted upon women because of Eve's sin. The new professions of gynaecology and psychology denounced women's bodies and minds as seriously defective, and used 'scientific' discoveries to justify excluding women from higher education and from political life.

Woman's Bible
The first feminists struggled against ideas like these - often with remarkable humour. Weary of quotations from the Bible being used to lend God's authority to the subjection of women, the leading US feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Woman's Bible in l8953, a caustic and entertaining commentary on the scriptural passages most favoured by misogynists.

As a comment on Eve's lofty nature she notes that the serpent did not try to tempt her from the path of duty by brilliant jewels, rich dresses, worldly luxuries or pleasures, but with the promise of knowledge... and he found in the woman that intense thirst for knowledge that the simple pleasures of picking flowers and talking with Adam did not satisfy'. Compared with Adam, she says, Eve appears to great advantage throughout the entire drama.

Few contemporary feminists would consider the Bible sufficiently central to our oppression to be worthy of this sort of attack. Yet the underlying woman-hating motif of the Genesis story is reiterated throughout Western culture, permeating language, law, medicine, psychology, art and literature.

At last count the English language had 220 words (almost all derogatory) for a sexually promiscuous female and only 20 for a sexually promiscuous male (most of these complimentary). Words associated with women are sexualized so that apparently equivalent terms acquire very different meanings. A 'master' exercises authority whereas a 'mistress' is the so-called kept woman. The term 'sir' retains respect while 'madam' refers to someone who keeps a brothel. A 'lord of all he surveys' is quite different from a 'lady of the streets', and the meaning of 'he's a professional' is generally understood differently from 'she's a professional'. Even the word 'woman' is used as a term of abuse.

Likewise, words available to describe female genitals - 'cunt', 'slit', 'crack', 'slot' - reflect centuries of sadistic male use. Too often even modern obstetric medicine treats women's genitals with brutality. A pregnant woman faces cold metal instruments being shoved carelessly into her by clumsy doctors. She endures unnecessary episiotomies - the cutting of skin between anus and vagina - to speed delivery and is then sewn up again 'tight as a virgin for your husband'.

Triumphant phallus
This hostility towards the female body is expressed through pornography - most sickeningly in 'snuff' movies in which the actress is literally murdered on screen. In the pornographic portrayal of the sexual act women are overpowered and silenced, strapped helpless to tables, bound spreadeagled on beds, humiliated, degraded, gagged, handcuffed, beaten, assaulted with gun, knife, whip, penis. The pornography of pregnancy - in which pregnant women are depicted as whores, huge bellies fetishized, cunts displayed for the camera - is the ultimate 'triumph of the phallus over the death-dealing vagina' .4

Men frequently fear women's sexual power and feel justified in blaming them for acts of male violence. A 12-year-old girl who was raped after visiting her attacker's bedsit for coffee, behaved foolishly' commented one British judge in 1988. A few years earlier the judge observed of a 17-year-old girl who was raped by a motorist with whom she hitched a lift after being stranded following a party, that 'the victim was guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence'.1 Another rapist was sentenced to only three months in prison because his five-year-old victim was, said the judge, 'an unusually sexually promiscuous young lady.' He added, 'I do not put blame on the child exactly, but I do believe she was the aggressor.'5

Female sexuality causes men to lose self-control so that they cease to be responsible for their actions - or so runs the accepted wisdom. And in the US one woman continues to be raped every three minutes, one wife battered every 18 seconds.

Roots of hatred
Why do men express such hatred of women? Psychoanalysts suggest that men's gender identity is very fragile because, within typical child-rearing practices, girls can identify with their primary care-taker while boys have to separate themselves from their mother in order to achieve and assert their masculinity.

'The whole process of becoming masculine is at risk in the little boy from the date of his birth on; his still-to-be-created masculinity is endangered by the primary, profound, primeval oneness with the mother.'6 It is only by setting woman apart as Other, by resisting intimacy with her, by treating her with contempt and aggression, that men assert their own independent and fragile masculinity.

And because men have distanced themselves from 'the weaker sex' over the ages, setting themselves up as superior, it must be unbearably humiliating to need and desire women so much. Sex with women can re-evoke in men 'the unqualified, boundless, helpless passion of infancy. If he lets her, she can shatter his adult sense of power and control; she can bring out the soft, wild, naked baby in him'.7

In heterosexual intercourse men risk discovering in women an unsettling power which contradicts and undermines their own more obvious social, political and physical power. No wonder male sexual desire is so desperately tormented and full of conflict.

Because women know men to be vulnerable and fragile, they are often tempted to excuse them as 'just little boys' who need to over-compensate for their sense of inadequacy or 'womb-envy' with acts of spiteful misogyny. Female nurturing is presented as the solution to male violence - as though women haven't been doing that for centuries. Germaine Greer once commented that 'women have very little idea of how much men hate them'. For it is painful to confront the extent of men's hatred. But only when both men and women acknowledge its existence, its extent and its pervasiveness, can we act to end it. .

Celia Kitzinger teaches psychology in London.

1 Misogynies, Joan Smith (Faber and Faber 1989).
For Her Own Good, Barbara Ehrenreicb and Deidre English (Anchor and Doubleday 1978) and Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals, Marilyn French (Jonathan Cape 1985).
The Woman's Bible Part One, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1895, reprinted Polygon Edinburgh, 1985).
Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin, (Women's Press, London, 1981).
Spare Rib, Issue 118, 1982.
The Sexuality of Men, ed. Andy Metcalf and Martin Humphries (Pluto Press, London).
The Mermaid and the Minotaur. Dorothy Dinnerstein. (Harper and Row 1977).

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page