Female sexual and sexualized bodies are constructed in multiple ways. One construction posits that females are autonomous and self-determining, and advocates for unimpeded choice regarding sexual expression, bodies, and reproduction. In this view, females ought not to be held to any external standard of morality that limits them (and their bodies) artificially, such as social or religious mores and norms constructed within perceived patriarchal and/or sexist structures. A reflection of an ongoing hard-fought struggle for emancipation and enfranchisement, females rightly claim their capacity to choose for themselves to be sexual, moral agents without necessarily intending procreation. In a contrasting prominent, public construction, female bodies are circumscribed by social limitations on leaky, open, and untamed female sexuality. We witness these limitations historically in prohibitions on participation of parturient or menstruating females in liturgies and sacraments. Surveillance and monitoring of public displays of skin, feminine hygiene, and sexual activity (real or perceived) seem required to maintain female bodies as reproductive but not overtly sexual—modest and pure.

In their extremes, these two constructions are limited in their appeal and merit for females. While there is significant fruitful ground for exploration between the extremes, contemporary Western culture seems fixated on these poles as options for female sexuality. Sadly, both constructions maintain female bodies as consumers (of reproductive products and social messaging) and consumed (by external surveillance and sexual drive), within institutional and social perceptions of reproduction. By constructing female sexual bodies as either sexual and self-determining or pure/modest and circumscribed, both perceptions lean toward stereotypical and thus limited accounts of female sexuality, at the expense of real menstruating and sexual bodies. That is, neither construction endeavors explicitly to integrate menstrual realities into female bodies as both reproductive and a signifier of general health and healthy sexuality.

While each of these constructions has its merits, neither offers a complete awareness of the female sexual body: in both, at some point in their menstrual lives, females forfeit awareness of their own bodies and are controlled and exercise control for the benefit of others. These realities could include avoiding premarital sex without the benefit of bodily menstrual awareness (which is not equivalent to biological reproductive understanding), when monitored by external perceptions of purity. In this case, females are distanced from their personal sexual bodies, desires, and pleasures. Another possibility includes engaging in nonmarital sex using some form of birth control (or not), typically barriers (condoms), hormones (birth control pills, contraceptive injections, or rings), or medical interventions (intrauterine devices) that control reproductive cycles chemically/hormonally and thereby potentially alienate females from their naturally occurring, individually experienced reproductive cycles. To address these alienations, I suggest inviting females into menstrual awareness, both socially and individually, via an embodied account of female sexuality and menstruation that takes seriously the goodness of sexual bodies in general, and the goodness of sexual self- and other awareness.

The full paper, published in Horizons, “Constructed Female Bodies” by Doris Kieser of St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, can be viewed here free of charge until July  30, 2017.

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