The root cause of the sexual assault/harassment epidemic: Though prohibited de jure, culture de facto entitles men to the use of women’s bodies as sexual property

In the last few weeks, each day seems to bring news that yet another handful of prominent men are serial sexual assailants and/or harassers. As a feminist political philosopher, I know that this is not a matter of bad apples, but the ongoing manifestation of some really, really old and longstanding cultural norms about men’s access to women’s bodies as sexual property.

These rapists, abusers, and harassers are acting on deeply embedded cultural norms that have remained embedded in society even as the laws that used to underwrite them changed.

Traditionally, marriage law entitled husbands to their wives’ person as a form of property. This is what couverture was: wives’ legal personhood was subsumed in their husbands’. The marriage contract was where she signed her personhood over to him; she consented to become his private property. Private property is conventionally understood as that which cannot be intruded upon without the owner’s consent. By making husbands owners of wives, wives’ bodies and labor and votes and and and become subject to the husband’s consent. Husbands are entitled to use their wives bodies in whatever way they choose, because wives are not persons but property and thus disposable without consent.

With the abolition of couverture and the criminalization of marital rape, the law no longer denies women ownership of their person. They can make contracts in their own name, for example. As I have argued here, we increasingly expect and reward otherwise privileged women (cis, white-ish, straight) for spectacularly demonstrating their command over their bodies as sexual property.

But even though the laws and social expectations have changed for women, the social expectations haven’t changed so much for men. Aside from the law, men are bombarded with messages that they are entitled to women’s bodies as their (the men’s) sexual property, and that women don’t need to be asked about their consent. Those messages are in the media, in interpersonal interactions, and in institutional policies, practices, and decisions.

I’m not trying to excuse anyone’s behavior–far from it. I’m trying to explain the underlying reasons for this behavior. These reasons go beyond individual judgment, so it would be a mistake to treat this problem as something we can fix by targeting bad actors, or by relying on law, criminalization, and other purely juridical solutions.