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Liberal, secular and sexist

By Tiziana Torresi - posted Tuesday, 28 February 2006

In discussions of multiculturalism, one point of contention is often the degree of “liberalism” of the parties involved. On the one hand, the policies of liberal societies, for example, their treatment of national minorities or migrants, are held up for scrutiny against the liberal ideals they profess and are often found wanting. On the other hand, the supposed illiberalism of some groups is invoked as a relevant reason against the feasibility of their successful integration.

One of the key points in this debate is the status of women within minority groups. The concern is that, in multicultural societies, some minority cultures may be more patriarchal then the surrounding majority culture. Thus, any protection granted to these groups could result in the perpetuation of cultural contexts which impede women’s full inclusion as equal members of society. Many feminists have been, for this reason, often less than enthusiastic supporters of some multicultural policies.

This discussion has come to the fore dramatically in Australia recently, with Lebanese-Australian youths accused of considering themselves somehow entitled to sexually harass (or worse) “Anglo” Australian girls because of their “lack of modesty”. Since they do not properly cover themselves and behave immodestly these women are considered “fair game” in the most horrible sense of the expression. This attitude has rightly caused outrage.


But while this way of thinking is portrayed as alien to our culture, as belonging to backwards and illiberal minorities, what struck me was instead its familiarity. For of course, this belief is neither new, nor alien to Western liberal societies, but rather a deeply ingrained attitude which women have fought against for decades.

We judge women as “good” or “bad” according to their sexual behaviour, too. Traditionally we have done this. Christianity values women’s modesty and chastity as much as Islam does. Prevalently Christian societies have witnessed the distortion and perversion of these values in forms similar to those attributed to the young Lebanese men in Australia.

In Western liberal societies women have often been considered “fair game” when believed to be “easy”. This belief was at one time, and partially still is, so widespread to require the implementation of “shield laws” in rape trials. This measure aims to prevent defence lawyers querying the victim about her sexuality at the trial: as if finding her to be less than chaste was somehow reason to disbelieve her claims, or worse, that this made the rape somehow less of a crime.

This classification of women as “good” or “bad”, “angels” or “whores”, has pervaded social mores for centuries, functioning as a very effective constraint on women’s sexual choices and their freedom more generally. This has provided the basic plot for many dramas about the fall of women through sexual misconduct, from literature to cinema.

What lies at the centre of these attitudes is, to my mind, something worse than simply a perverse and extreme interpretation of the values of modesty and chastity. It is rather the identification of women as mainly sexual beings, the equation of women’s worth with their sexuality. These are the very beliefs and attitudes feminists have criticised in Western societies for decades, nothing new or alien here.

But surely, we have, as modern, liberal societies, left these attitudes behind us? Indeed, this is precisely the point of feminists worrying about multicultural policies, namely, that the protection of patriarchal, illiberal minority cultures ensures the survival of attitudes towards women we have striven to eradicate from our own culture.


Women in liberal societies enjoy full sexual freedom. Nowadays, women tend to have more then one sexual partner in the course of their lives and this does not mean for them social death. Indeed, many celebrate such freedom. The dichotomy of the “angel” and the “whore” is finally behind us. Sex and the City rules!

To the extent that this is true, I think it is misleading. For is it really the case that in liberal societies today the worth of a woman is unrelated to her sexuality? I doubt it.

Secular, liberal societies might not uniformly value modesty and chastity to the same degree anymore. But they still, in their cultural, economic, social and even political expressions, often reduce women essentially to their sexuality, and they calculate their worth on this basis.

The celebration of women’s sexual freedom has not meant moving beyond this basic association. Success at the game of sexuality is now the key to the process instead. Think of the painful obsession of women with their looks; the manipulation of ideals of beauty in the media, the extent to which many women will go to adhere to these stereotypes and appear sexually appealing and the undeniable impact this has not only in their private, but also in their public lives. Think of the pervasive, and debasing, use of women’s bodies, and of sex, as a commercial tool. We might now celebrate sexuality, but we are still very much defined by it.

Until we see women’s sexuality simply as an expression, one of the many, of women as full and equal human beings we will not have made a real breakthrough, and truly left behind the attitudes we rightly condemn.

This is of course not meant to excuse this kind of attitude in minority cultures by arguing that “we are all the same”. To the contrary, it is meant to keep us vigilant for all forms of sexual discrimination, whatever form they may take and in whatever group, avoiding though the risk of displacing the problem on somebody else, out there, lest we find it in ourselves.

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About the Author

Tiziana Torresi studied Politics at the University of New South Wales and was also educated at “La Sapienza” Prima Universita’ di Roma, Italy. She is currently a member of St Antony’s College and of the Politics and International Relations Department, University of Oxford. In the last stages of her doctoral thesis in political philosophy, her research concentrates on the philosophy of migration.

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