Politics & Policy


Have American men and women lost all sense of shame before each other?

On Mother’s Day, May 9, the Sunday New York Times ran a long piece–beginning on the front page and continuing on pages 9 and 10–on the background of the Abu Ghraib abuses. It was peppered with the names of military women: Major General Barbara Fast, the highest-ranking intelligence officer in Iraq; the now-disgraced Brigadier General Janis Karpinski; Master Sergeant Lisa Girman, found guilty of mistreating Iraqi prisoners in May; and, of course, Pfc. Lynndie England. In a sign of how we’ve come to take the gender integration of the armed services for granted, the article did not draw attention to the high rank of the first two women. Nor did it take note of what would once have been thought a rarity: Women soldiers directing or participating in the sadistic treatment of male prisoners.

The page before the continuation held a full-page ad proposing a designer lipstick as a mother’s day gift.

This juxtaposition has a surprising amount to say about male and female roles in the United States today. It underlines the fact that womanhood and manhood are almost completely up for grabs, defined by dress and ornament only. And precisely because womanhood now means little besides sexual display and symbolism, huge expenditures on cosmetics and grooming are more important than ever. Anyone who thinks these are “natural” feminine preoccupations ought to reread Jane Austen, or the Brontes, or, for that matter, take a trip to any number of developing countries where the details of manicure and makeup are curiously irrelevant to most women.

This collapse of traditional roles has something to do with the involvement of women soldiers in disgraceful behavior. (Specialist Sabrina Harman, an MP, took the notorious human-pyramid photograph that shows a grinning Pfc. England standing behind naked, hooded Iraqi men, while the third female soldier of the six charged with abuse is Specialist Megan Ambuhl.) The participation of military women in the sort of acts once used by certain ideologues to condemn men as “naturally” brutal and violent is hardly surprising. Along with institutional barriers to women’s achievement, historical stereotypes of women as the more nurturing, gentle, or compassionate gender have disappeared. We have also lost the idea of certain actions being inappropriate “in mixed company.”

The restraints that shame once placed on what men and women would do in front of each other were part of the code of the “gentleman” and the “lady.” They once had a great deal more to do with the social understanding of womanhood than anything you could buy. Possibly people of Pfc. Lynndie England’s age believe that this code was mainly about stereotypes of female frailty and male strength. But it was much more about the remarkable way that men and women can–or, at one time, could–encourage kind and decent actions in one another by adhering to a code of conduct. And even in the absence of kindness and decency, traditional ideas of shame would have prevented certain kinds of abuse. At one time, a woman would have told the men of Abu Ghraib that she would have no part in stripping and shaming Iraqi prisoners. At one time a man would not have let a woman see him strip other men. He would at least have done it outside her view. And if women were ever-present in the environment, he wouldn’t have committed those particular deeds at all.

I’m talking about social constraints here, not morality, although these social constraints are all the morality many people need in everyday life. Human beings are imperfect, and some are much more imperfect than others. But traditional norms of shame usually serve to keep their excesses within bounds. When these norms collapse, as they have done in our society, abuses like those of Abu Ghraib are among the results. Much has been made of the supposed special shame of Muslim prisoners at being stripped in front of female captors, but what about the vanished shame of American men and women in front of each other?

When even sexual torture is co-ed, something has gone badly wrong with our ideas of manhood, womanhood, and shame.

Ann Marlowe is a freelance writer living in New York City.


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