Today, in France, whenever I hear certain right-wing moralists denounce the "feminization" of our society, I realize that we are once again going through one of these periods of instability when the female sex becomes an object of political tension.
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PARIS -- What works up a moralist more than anything else? Women. Why? Because the most political organ that exists lies right between their legs -- and moralists would just love to get their hands on it.

Do you know of anything more political, more visceral, than the survival of the species and the transmission of identity, national values and family? Just think of the way in which man has always viewed the female sex organs as both a source of pleasure and birth. Nowhere on Earth is there a more privileged place to project every ideology possible than the place that is recognized as the origin of our world.

Alas, as soon as the world is in crisis, man's immediate impulse is to turn to the female crotch. Let me explain.

Whenever there is a period of economic, political or religious crisis; whenever the foundations of society are shaken, men feel the need to tighten their political grip on the female sex and to say, "This is mine" -- and to reaffirm a woman's social role at the heart of the family and her biological role as a mother.

This is where the danger lies.

Take France at the beginning of the 19th century. Following the chaos of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Code made French women the property of their husbands, and women who were deemed too eager in their quest for sexual pleasure were subject to excision. The fear was that their unchecked "freedom" would threaten the stability of society. But don't judge France too quickly -- in the United States, after the terrible Civil War, Robert Battey inaugurated in 1872 the practice of removing women's ovaries. Female castration suppresses sexual drive and thus is guaranteed to keep women at home. As for the doctor and health reformer John Harvey Kellogg, the famous inventor of Corn Flakes, his recommendation to curb female sexual drive was to apply carbolic acid to young women's privates.

After World War I, in a France that was victorious but in shambles, Alexis Carrel, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize, put forth in the 1930s -- without flinching -- that an aging France was in crisis, for women had "ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race." What fools they had been to seek emancipation!

There it was, the source of all evil. The stock market crash of 1929, the deeps wounds the war had caused, the moral collapse that had followed the separation of church and state -- none of this was to blame. It was all the woman's fault. Only once freed from contraception, from work, and from schooling, women could guarantee that physiological laws would once again be the foundation of social laws. Motherhood was the sole legitimate feminine identity. Women who dared to use contraception and to thwart national policy deserved nothing less than capital punishment. These arguments would reach their climax in the totalitarianism of the 20th century, which ordered women to respect the rank, the place and the function that their sex assigned them to.

This is why, in 1937, Hitler imprisoned Ernst Gräfenberg, a Jewish doctor in Germany who had had the crazy idea to help women who didn't want to give birth to avoid pregnancy, and to help those who wanted to enhance their sexual pleasure to become more familiar with their anatomy. He discovered the G-Spot a few years later, while in exile in New York.

This is why, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) -- which opposed the defenders of the young republic and Franco's nationalist, Catholic putschists -- women whose "vagina had given birth to republican filth," author Yannick Rick explains, were forced to have their privates shaven. Women were blamed for the "reddening" of Spanish society and for the spread of Marxism. Because they had failed to play their proper role as women, their pubic hair was shaven, which in the nationalists' imagination was an act of catharsis supposed to remind women of their rightful place. A few years later, the same practice was used in Nazi Germany, where women's pubic hair was shaven upon entry into concentration camps. In prisoners' most intimate journal entries, their first memory was the loss of their femininity, as German Kapos came at them with scissors to shave their privates, so as to mark them as inferior beings.

This is also why pain-free childbirth, which was discovered in Soviet Russia in the early 1950s, was not made available to Western Europe. The technique had been developed under the pressure of Stalin, who hoped to see a new generation of soldiers blossom in women's wombs in order to repopulate the war-savaged country. However, in the middle of the Cold War with the capitalist world, it was unthinkable to allow Western women to benefit from this discovery. They would have to clench their teeth a while longer as they accomplished their duty, for such was the will of politicians.

Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege was recently awarded the Sakharov Prize for his work taking care of women raped as an act of war -- for the 500,000 women who had been victims of rape during the civil war in Congo, the extreme cruelty of which is driven by political and not sexual motives.

The point of this war technique is to destroy the source of pleasure of the other, of the one to be eradicated. Such tactics were used during the Bosnian War , which tore Europe apart in the 1990s, as well as in Rwanda during the same period. Women's sexual organs became the arms of ethnic purification -- destroying the enemy was not enough; the new race had to be planted in the enemy's womb.

Finally, this is why tens of millions of forced sterilizations were practiced on Chinese women, in order to meet the demands of the one-child policy.

What do these historical events all have in common? As soon as political events take a turn for the worse, certain ideologues claim that each sex has a place designated by nature and a social function dictated by biological purpose. Calling these ideas into question would only make us guilty of provoking a social catastrophe. The return of the high priests of morality who insist on keeping women in their "right place" is a major sign, indeed a signal, of crisis.


Today, in France, whenever I hear certain right-wing moralists denounce the "feminization" of our society, I realize that we are once again going through one of these periods of instability when the female sex becomes an object of political tension. They claim that the patriarchal family is dead in Western society. Who is the murderer? Women, of course! By way of a clever syllogism, the culprits to be blamed for the ills of our time are easily identified: more and more women hold positions of power; men's political power is dwindling; therefore, women are weakening political power.

I am ill-qualified to pass judgment on this point, and would welcome the opinion of the Liberian women who, under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee, challenged the tyrannical rule of Charles Taylor by refusing to satisfy their husbands and by conducting a sex strike, thus reinforcing democratic power and peace in the country.

The major societal stakes of surrogacy in Europe; Spain's about-face on abortion rights; the debates on abortion rights in the Irish parliament; American Republican Todd Akin's campaign remarks claiming that rape rarely leads to pregnancy because, assuming it's a "real rape," a woman's body can block the process of procreation -- all of these political events lead me to believe that we are going through a period in which, faced with the disappearance of the world as they knew it, certain people are exerting pressure on the female body in order to restore a virile nationalism which they consider to be salutary. Where are they headed? From the looks of history, toward an intolerant and often totalitarian society, which will inevitably lead to war.

This is the stuff of our times, a conflation of high hopes and lost illusions. Believe me, it takes a lot of "balls" to bear through centuries of moralistic talk. To be the scapegoat that moralists have found conveniently within their reach and endowed with the consistency and stability that they have proved incapable of yielding to society. To paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first person who took the female sex and declared, "This is mine," and who found people who were naïve enough to believe him -- that person was the true founder of half of humanity's servitude.

In October 2014 Diane Ducret's new book, "La Chair Interdite" (The Forbidden Flesh) was published by Albin Michel Editions. It is a new history of the female sex and the way in which men, between fear and desire, have always viewed the female sex organs as both the source of their pleasure and their birth and made them a political object.

Read the French version of this piece at Le Huffington Post.

John Legend

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