Katharine Young coined the term “bodylore” to encompass the study and discourses of the social construction of the body (Young 1993). Our bodies, of course belong to us, as the vessels in which we move through life, but our bodies are also vessels of communication. With our bodies, we communicate purpose and social meaning, but our bodies are also perceived by others in ways that we may or may not intend. In other words, the way we dress, wear our hair, physically move around, and speak are ways that we may communicate our identity—who we wish to be, how we wish to be seen, what we want people to think we are. There are often cultural definitions and social meanings attached to these characteristics of our bodies, which can dictate and influence how others view us. For example, a woman who wears a low-cut shirt with her breast cleavage exposed and short shorts may be dressed as such because it’s summer and she is in Florida, but someone may see her in passing and think “wow, that woman looks like a prostitute.” The woman may be a highly-qualified lawyer, but one may assume otherwise based on her outfit. This is because clothing is not just fabric adorning the body, but also has socially defined meaning attached. When we picture a lawyer, we likely envision a tailored suit—we may not even picture a female, but instead, a man with a tie and perfectly crispy suit and dress shoes.
Historically in the United States, the female body has been considered lesser valued than that of the male body. Legally, a woman’s body was considered the property of her husband once she married and her personhood rights were reduced drastically upon marriage. Moreover, a married woman’s body could be legally beaten and raped by her husband until the late 20th century. Marital rape was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993.
“What was she wearing?”
“How many sexual partners did she have?”
“Was she drinking?”
A quick google search of these phrases will present numerous articles about the commonly asked questions of rape and sexual assault victims (https://www.thenation.com/article/what-was-she-wearing/). The questions are loaded with a set of assumptions—that a victim must have been wearing something sexually suggestive, something that insinuated that she wanted to have sex, that her goal when dressing her body that day was to have sex with anyone who would have her. The outfit must have been an invitation to the woman’s body, in some way. In 1999, a court in Italy overturned a rape conviction on the basis of the “jeans alibi.” The jeans alibi proposed that the victim, who was 18 at the time, wore jeans so tight that her 45-year old driving instructor and assailant would not have been able to remove them without her help, implying that she, therefore, consented. The court argued that “jeans cannot be removed easily and certainly it is impossible to pull them off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force” and ordered a new trial for the defendant, who was previously convicted of all charges against him after the victim had appealed the lesser charge of indecent exposure. A woman’s sexual history also becomes a question in cases of sexual assault. This standard that a woman’s sexual history could be used as a defense in her rape case dates back to at least 1736 and English common law, which is the basis for many traditional laws in the U.S.
When a woman is sexually assaulted and/or raped, her body becomes open to scrutiny and judgment of anyone and everyone within earshot. Who she has shared her body with sexually and when, what she has put in her body, how she has adorned her body, and what she does with her body in her daily life becomes public business. Her body may determine who believes her story and even if her assailant or rapist is found guilty. The social construction of the female body as a sexual object encourages sexual assault and harassment of women, and it impacts the way victims are treated. Constructing women as objects whose value is lesser than that of men contributes to the invalidation of a women’s autonomy. Thus, bodylore is an important and valuable area of research in the field of sociology and criminal justice. In order to decrease the prevalence of violence against women, the root causes must be addressed and I’ve no doubt that the construction of the female body is at the root of these issues.
For centuries, men have believed that raping and physically beating their wives was acceptable because the justice system allowed it. In modern society, we are bombarded with advertising that research has suggested perpetuates the sexual objectification of women. Sexualized male bodies on the other hand are still considered people. In recent months, a social media movement using the hashtag and phrase “Me Too” has moved to the forefront. The goal of the movement is to support survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and to raise awareness about how prevalent and common it is. Following an uptick of the phrase on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, celebrities and public figures began sharing their stories, and outing big names like Harvey Weinstein and Olympic gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. Thus, there could not be a better time for bodylore to be used as a tool in social research and violence against women. Furthermore, there are still those who prescribe to the belief that gender and the resulting power structures from gender construction are natural and innate and may not consider bodylore a serious or relevant research focus, but I feel that our historical treatment of women and the construction of the female body that contributes to the way we perceive sexual assault and rape demonstrates otherwise. Bodylore is absolutely a useful tool for breaking down the social construction of bodies and acknowledging that these constructions may be harmful and damaging to certain groups and their rights as human beings.
Bennice, Jennifer A. and Patricia A. Resick. 2003. “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice.” Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 4(3):228-246.
Bernard, Phillippe, Sarah J. Gervais, Jill Allen, Sophie Campomizzi, and Olivier Klein. “Integrating Sexual Objectification with Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis.” Psychological Science 23(5):469-471.
Graham, Brian Armen. 2018. “’I Was Molested by Dr Larry Nassar’: How the Gymnastics Sexual Abuse Scandal Unfolded.” The Guardian, January 27 (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jan/27/larry-nassar-trial-gymnastics-sexual-abuse).
Rothman, Lily. 2015. “When Spousal Rape First Became a Crime in the U.S.” Time Magazine, July 28th (http://time.com/3975175/spousal-rape-case-history/).
Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women, 1776–1830.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Women’s Suffrage. Retrieved October 22, 2017 (http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essay/legal-status-women-1776%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%80%9C1830).
Stanley, Allessandra. 1999. “Ruling on Tight Jeans and Rape Sets Off Anger in Italy.” The New York Times, February 16th (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/16/world/ruling-on-tight-jeans-and-rape-sets-off-anger-in-italy.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=World&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article).
Young, Katharine. 1995. Bodylore. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.
Rebecca Morales is currently pursuing her M.A. in Applied Sociology at Old Dominion University, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. She received her B.S. from ODU with a major in Sociology and a minor in Women’s Studies. Her academic interests include race, class, and gender, but she is especially interested in the ways in which American Indians and their various cultures are constructed, portrayed, and appropriated in the U.S., as well as the impacts of gender based violence on tribal communities.