Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wallets: Why Patriarchy Relies on Taking From Both

In mid-December, a student wrote in seeking advice on how to convince her boyfriend that the wage gap and rape culture were real (How Do I Convince My Boyfriend that the Wage Gap and Rape Culture are Real?  December 2016). I passed along the challenge (re: the wage gap issue) to my students, and as expected, they did a wonderful job.  With their permission, I’ve taken from their responses and incorporated them within.  I have also contributed my own understanding of patriarchy and rape culture.  To all of my students who help me and their classmates learn each day, thank you, and well done!

Dear Friend,

I’m not so sure that your boyfriend is looking for proof that the wage gap exists—that is does is an indisputable fact. I suspect he is challenging your assertion that women get paid less because they are women.  He may have suggested that women on the whole earn less than men because women gravitate towards low paying jobs, such as the caregiving/service/support professions.  In part, he is correct, but we must consider the environment from which that “choice” grows out of.  Additionally, choice of profession is not the only culprit for the wage gap.

Rape culture refers to a setting in which sexual violence against girls and women is pervasive and normalized. I imagine he is challenging you on this because here in the US, sexual assault is criminalized, so it may seem inconceivable to him that a community could both criminalize and normalize the same act.  That’s an understandable confusion.  It is also likely that he’s internalized the “myth” about rape—the myth about what rape looks like—that rape is a predatory stranger violently attacking and sexually assaulting a random woman.  He would not be alone in this.  But many women, if not most, know that their rape looked nothing like that.

Women will tell you that their rape looked like their boyfriend holding them down a little too forcefully…their rape wasn’t discovered until they woke up the next morning, because they were unconscious the night before…their rape looked like them saying “fine,” because they knew there was no point to keep saying no…their rape looked like the minister taking her under his wing when her dad abandoned the family, and she liked his attention, just not the sex part…her rape looked like her intoxicated father coming into her room at night, while her mom worked the night shift…her rape looked like any other evening getting into bed with her husband, but that night they fought and he raped her…

That’s what rape looks like, and those rapes, the majority of rapes, get minimized simply because they don’t look like the myth. She knows that.  She internalizes that.  She self-blames.  She doesn’t report.  He knows he can get away with it.  Again.  That’s rape culture.

It is so very important to share what we learn—to inform others—because our good action, our resistance to injustice, cannot be expected if awareness is lacking. It is your task, our task, to teach your sweet other (and any other sweet other we are so inclined to inform) that in fact, in this community, there is an epidemic of sexual violence against girls and women, and for the most part, girls and women have learned to live with it.

There are many issues that can only be discussed by examining the context from which they arose. As such, there can be no genuine conversation about disparity in earnings (wage gap), and the normalization of sexual violence against girls and women (rape culture), without first discussing the ideology of patriarchy.  This idea is ancient, global, and informs not only our community, but how the individual experiences others, their own self, and the expectations they bring to both the public and private realms of their life.


The ideology of patriarchy is the idea that men, and all things deemed masculine (being rational, stoic, strong and protective, brave and filled to the brim with sexual urges–for women) are superior to women, and all things deemed feminine (being emotional/intuitive, able in the realm of family and/or caregiving, physically weak, pretty, pure and virginal—until Mr. Right comes along). It is the belief that when it comes to the public realm—the space outside the home—the qualities men possess are the preferred qualities for taking charge of that realm.  And even if women are admitted into the public realm, the culture is informed by male experience and male norms, and the women must play along by the rules of that “masculine” culture.

Boys rule.

Patriarchy is a system of inequality built around gender categories—that is—patriarchy relies on “locked in” ideas and expectations about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. Those ideas lead us to any number of conclusions about men and women, a key one being that women’s natural abilities naturally relegate them to the domestic realm, and men’s natural abilities rightfully lead them into inheriting the public realm, where they head out to earn money and shape the culture at large.  Heterosexuality is compulsory.

It is in the public realm where policy is shaped, laws are made, justice is named, theology is engaged, medical research is performed, and the ideas about men and women are maintained, as a matter of natural course and habit. Men have dominated the public realm, thus have shaped all those pockets of society that shape and influence the lives of all of us, women and men.  Until about 50 years ago, women’s ability to enter and participate in that realm was minimal, and thus, women’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual presence in the culture at large is missing.

Think of something as simple as voting for one’s political representatives. Men denied women the right to vote, and found the infringement upon women’s civil rights to be reasonable, acceptable, even obvious, and provided rationale that satisfied the patriarchal drive to hold on to privilege and power—women even bought into the idea!

Just as the ideology of white supremacy relies on racism to perpetuate the idea that white people (and the “culture” of white people) is superior to people of color (and their culture), the result of which is to maintain white privilege, patriarchy relies on the system of sexism to perpetuate the idea that given who men are—their distinct abilities, strengths, etc.—they inherit the dominant space, the space “outside the home,” and thus their power and their privilege that is “naturally theirs,” is maintained.

In my experience, men often become defensive when there is a discussion about patriarchy, because they may feel they are being bashed and blamed. It is important to share with your boyfriend that patriarchy is an ideology we’re all steeped in, men and women alike, and we have all internalized it, and we all participate in it.  Yes—women also perpetuate patriarchal ideas and sexist practice, practice that can and often does walk them into co-operating with their own oppression.  In fact, the force of oppression relies on the oppressed internalizing and advancing their own oppression.

I maintain that we should all have a problem with the patriarchy, but unfortunately, when you do not feel the sting of patriarchy, you cannot experience the problem with patriarchy. Especially for those privileged by the patriarchy, and those attached to/dependent upon those privileged by the patriarchy, it is no small task to get those folks to come to terms with their privileged status, examine it, and give it away.

I would like to believe that I am not a racist—I know what racism sounds like and acts like and I am unwilling to ever participate. But my “non-racism” can’t stop there.  I must acknowledge that I am privileged by white supremacy because I am white.

In the same way, while a man may not be sexist, he must still acknowledge that he is privileged by patriarchy, and resist privilege that depends on the oppression of others. What might that look like?  He might be supportive of affirmative action, he would find President Trump’s bragging about “grabbing pussy” confession of a crime, he’d kick his porn habit, he’d call his buddy out on the homophobic joke, and he would work to understand how it is that women work hard, really hard, and still earn approximately eighty cents to every dollar a man earns. He’d care.  He’d become an ally of women working really, really, hard to heal the community of patriarchy.

Dominance Ideologies

Dominance ideologies (patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.) rely on normalizing the idea that one group of people is somehow inferior to some other group. In order to maintain the oppression, three things are essential:

  • Deny/limit the targeted group access to the marketplace
  • Deny/limit the targeted group sexual/reproductive autonomy
  • Normalize the violence against the targeted group, in part by blaming the targeted group for the violence brought upon them.

The marketplace is where we go to earn our money to by our food…denying a girl education, for example, is an action that keeps her from accessing the marketplace, or at a minimum, significantly limits it. Paying women less than men in the workplace, for example, limits a women’s access to the marketplace.  Sexually harassing her at work, limits her access to the marketplace.  Creating an identity for her that necessarily relegates her to the domestic realm, keeps her out of the marketplace.  Expecting that a woman will assume a disproportionate amount of the childcare and home care, limits her access to the marketplace.  Not providing meaningful support for maternity leave, in terms of time off and job security, undermines a women’s access to the marketplace.

Sexual and reproductive autonomy involves our right as an adult to act as an independent moral agent with regards to our sexuality and reproductive capabilities. It’s about psychological/emotional/and bodily integrity.  It’s about liberty—the equal exercise of liberty for all adult women and men.  Resisting women’s efforts to secure reproductive autonomy is another way of keeping her out of the market place, and stripping her of her right to act as an independent, moral agent.

Normalized violence—violence we come to expect, violence we are asked to accept in the form of being forced to take ownership of the violence (blaming the victim) is at the heart of every single dominance ideology.  The group deemed inferior will endure daily micro-reminders of their status, they will be objectified, while the dominant group internalizes entitlement.  It is only a matter of time until violence is brought upon the group—it’s the idea of being entitled to what one has come to expect, and that idea, that entitlement, gets maintained with violence.

Wage Gap

In the United States, citizens expect equal treatment under the law. There are two kinds of equality in the law—formal equality and substantive equality.  Formal equality prescribes equal treatment for all people, regardless of their circumstances.  Formal equality presumes that if we all have the same rights, inequality is eliminated.  Substantive equality says that while a law or policy might appear to be non-discriminatory on its face, it may fail to address the specific circumstances of a particular group of people.  Substantive equality asks us to look at how formal equality actually plays out in people’s lives, and recognizes that different circumstances create different experiences under the law.  So long as everyone in the community is equally situated, formal equality is fine.  But when people in the community are not, then formal quality falls short, and must be replaced by practices that result in true equality, or substantive equality.

For some reason(s), women earn less than men in the marketplace. Why the inequality?

Those who challenge that the wage gap is real will often point to the fact that women choose lower paying jobs, such as teacher, nurse, daycare provider, book-keeper. They may maintain that if a man and a woman are both hired for the same job, their pay will be the same, because law requires this.  If women want to earn what men earn, they simply have to go for the same jobs men reach for.  This is “formal equality” thinking.

Women and men are not similarly situated in the community—we occupy very different worlds, if you will. Traditionally, women and men have assumed different roles, most strikingly seen in the family setting.  It is a local and global reality that women assume majority of the domestic and familial tasks and responsibilities (none of which generates any independent income) while men are expected to provide the bulk of the financial support to sustain the household. You could use this expected division of roles as a starting point in your discussion with your boyfriend about the wage gap—in fact, many of your classmates did:

  • Is it possible that society chooses our career paths, [given] gendering, oppression, and patriarchy?
  • By constructing concepts that women are caretakers and are meant to stay at home, cook, clean, and mother, women are also socially [conditioned] into [caretaking jobs].
  • Many women are forced out of the workforce because they can’t afford childcare.  
  • The jobs women do are devalued and pay less because women do them. Research shows that when women moved into a field in large quantities, the wages [in that field] declined.
  • One student argued that jobs women tend to take are more important than what a CEO of a company might do, for example, a position men tend to fill. She then went on to explore how patriarchy and capitalism make good bed-fellows—what the [male-informed] culture values, it will pay for.
  • Another student wrote, more money and more value is placed on male-driven careers, such as technology and engineering fields, while women tend to fill more less-funded [jobs] such as domestic positions, education and non-profit organizations, which aren’t highly valued in a [capitalist, profit driven] society.
  • One student quoted The American Economic Review, “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.”


  • Another student wrote about the lack of equal opportunities offered in regards to childcare…even a woman whose goal is to do both—raise a child and continue working—the system is rigged against her. She went on to discuss how businesses will often discriminate against a female applicant if she is planning on becoming a mother in the near future. She quoted President Trump, who noted that pregnancy is an inconvenience to a business, and went on to conclude that the wage gap is part of a bigger problem—that is, the patriarchy.

In sum, it seems your classmates are asking us to consider whether women have authentic choice regarding earning and having a family. Women tend to consider their desire for children and family as they are considering career paths, whereas men tend not to.  Perhaps women consider family more because women are expected to consider family more.  So when they become teachers because it’s a great career for someone with children, and that career is underpaid, is there any responsibility for that “gap in earning” on the part of society?  For example, when politicians fail to support universal day care in a patriarchal culture, are they simultaneously maintaining the wage gap?

Choice is only choice when all options are equally available to everyone.

And the wage gap explanation does not end with “women choose to earn less.” Between otherwise equally situated persons, there is still pay disparity. I often hear stories from my students, who have held such positions as servers in restaurants, life guards, landscapers, and retail positions, only to learn that it is not uncommon for her to be paid a dollar or two less per hour than a male holding the very same position.  Here is what a couple of classmates shared:

  • I personally make 9.75 an hours and my male coworker makes 10.25 an hour. We do the same exact thing which is clean tables, wash dishes, and work the cash register.
  • For my job, I work in a flower nursery, and for every hour I work I make 12 dollars, for every hour a male with my equivalent job works, he makes 15 dollars per hour.  
  • I worked at [a sewing store] for years. My boyfriend was hired well after me, but was started at $1 an hour more than I was earning.  


You may wish to explore these links with your boyfriend—it provides some data that establishes the wage gap exists in situations where folks do the very same job.

In discussing gaps in earnings, please invite your boyfriend to also consider that there is a gap in the space of opportunity—a true gap, where some have much more privilege to access opportunity than others.  This gap must be explored as well, in order to understand the gap in earning, not only between women and men, but between white women and women of color, between white men and men of color, etc.  Such a discussion will be one that includes exploring class, which will lead one to confront historical and systemic sexism and racism (if it is an honest discussion).

Last but not least, I am including a comment someone left on the dearliz site:

Anyone that does not believe that the wage gap is real needs to wake up. Even if women were paid exactly the same as men there would still be a net loss for women. This due to the fact that women’s clothing is more expensive than men’s. Women bear the burden of the majority of birth control methods and have the requirement of more hygiene products. Any man that does not believe the statement about the cost of clothing, go price an everyday package of women’s underwear or bras. Better yet, think about your girlfriend’s size 4 jeans that cost more than yours, but require way less material.

Rape Culture

Sexual Assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that takes place without consent. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence that includes rape, groping, child sexual abuse or the torture of a person in a sexual manner. Any sexual contact or behavior must be consented to—otherwise it is a crime.  Consent must be voluntary.  Children and barely conscious/unconscious individuals cannot provide consent. 

Every semester, in my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course, I conduct an informal, anonymous survey.  I ask direct and simple questions:  Have you ever been sexually assaulted?  Have you ever been raped?  Do you have anyone very close to you who has been sexually assaulted or raped?  And year after year after year, the numbers don’t budge.  On average, in a class of 25 women, approximately 16-19 have been sexually assaulted, and of those, 6-8 have been raped.  National statistics report that 1 in 6 women have been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and that sexual assault has decreased in the last 10 years (See Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for additional statistics).  I have seen no decrease in the numbers in my own classes.

The first time I said out loud in class, it’s okay to rape women, the students seemed to experience three emotional reactions simultaneously:  shock, offense, and acknowledgement.  This is because women know their reality, but at the same time, to say out loud this is my reality is so disconcerting that it is often easier to quietly hold the knowledge of our vulnerability, and live with it.  Better for it to be “my private experience” rather than “our shared story as women.”

We also know that girls/women are usually assaulted by individuals they know/like/love/trust, making it very difficult for women to name their sexual assault as such. Best friends don’t rape you, so it was something else.  Boyfriends can’t rape you, so it was something else.  He’s a good guy, so he wouldn’t rape someone, so it’s something else.  I have heard over and over again: I didn’t even know what happened to me was rape…

When we speak of rape, it is important we make sure that we are all talking about the same thing. While women are certainly attacked by strangers in parking garages and while jogging at night, majority of rapes occur in “safe spaces” with “safe people.”  Additionally, it is important we use the right language when defining rape.  Rape is not sex without consent.  Sex, at a minimum, implies reciprocity and mutuality.  Rape does not involve either one of those, and therefore, it is in error to invoke the concept of sex in a definition of rape.

Rape is unwanted penetration and/or unconsented to penetration

So where is the proof that we live in a rape culture?

  1. The numbers. The numbers alone reveal the epidemic of sexual violence against girls and women. We need to ask the question, what sort of a culture, what sort of cultural ideas and values, could lead to this much violence against one particular group in the community?
  2. The lack of reporting. Women do not report their assaults for any number of reasons: they assume blame, they are ashamed, they know they don’t have enough proof, they know they won’t be believed, they don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble, or they just want to get on with their life…
  3. Victim blaming. When we blame a victim, we simultaneously reduce the culpability of the offender. Blame evens the scales out in terms of responsibility, rendering the crime “sort of not really a crime.”

What fuels the culture?

  1. Patriarchy: Patriarchy is a dominance ideology. Dominance ideologies always result in violence against the group deemed inferior. The violence against the targeted group gets normalized, in part by blaming the targeted group for the violence brought upon them.
  2. Pornography: Mainstream pornography regularly blurs the line between sex and rape. And as legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon observed, pornography takes all of the unspeakable crimes against women, and sexualizes them. Pornography makes dominance sexy. Pornography eroticizes abuse, and calls that abuse “sex.”
  3. The everyday social fabric of all of our lives: The election of Donald Trump. The sustained fame of Kobe Bryant (google his sexual assault case). Brock Turner, Brock Turner’s dad, and the judge who sentenced Brock Turner (google People v. Turner). The “boys will be boys” mantra. The double standard. The obsession with women’s virginity. Strip clubs as a normalized part of the pre-marriage ritual. Objectifying the bodies of girls and women on every billboard and magazine cover. The wage gap. Labeling females as “good girls” or “sluts.” Sexist jokes.

If the community truly found violence against girls and women intolerable, than there would be no hesitancy on the part of girl to come forward after a sexual assault—there would be no blaming of her—and she would not feel ashamed over a crime perpetrated against her. But every girl knows the truth of her culture, even if she doesn’t have a name for it.

If your boyfriend is still hesitant regarding the existence of this culture, just point out the most recent presidential election: Trump’s presidency is proof we live in a culture that considers sexual assault against women normal, legitimate, and not worthy of prosecution.  When someone brags about grabbing women by the pussy, because he can, and can still be elected to lead our country, what more proof do you need?

And so my friend, hopefully this column is a meaningful addition to the conversation you started with your boyfriend in December. I’m proud of you and your boyfriend for your willingness to examine these issues together.

Love, Liz

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