Sunday, March 8, 2015

Putting women into a cage? Some thoughts on containment, gender and sexuality

Courtisane au Caire by By Edmond Comte De Grimberghe
I’ve been to a couple of events this week that have got me thinking about the idea of containment in relation to gender and sexuality. 

On Tuesday, I attended the eighth Sexgen network seminar at Sheffield Hallam University: “What (not) to do: Young people, gender and sexuality”. 

Sexgen is a network of research centres in the North of England that brings together researchers from a range of disciplines (at the last two meetings I’ve attended I’ve chatted to academics from education, literature, cultural studies, politics, sociology and social work, as well as practitioners in health, education and social care) (here’s the full programme).

As sometimes happens at research events and conferences, a specific part of one paper resonated with me, and set me pondering on the long train journey back to Edinburgh: the idea of containment

Jenny Slater (@jenslater_) and Kirsty Liddiard (@kirstyliddiard1) from Sheffield Hallam gave a paper on young people with disabilities and their development into adulthood alongside the discourses of containment this entails. 

They pointed out that containment is the expectation of normative adulthood (which is also heteronormative, cis-gendered, able-bodied); the normative neoliberal body contains its fluids and excretions which are expelled in a controlled manner at socially-acceptable moments. Thus, toilet-training teaches children how to contain their bodies, and this containment is something that is particularly marked for women. We only need to think about the recent ‘controversies’ over talking about menstruation to see that fluids and bodily containment is deeply gendered in our culture. 

Slater and Liddiard talked about containment in the context of disabled bodies, in particular some of the difficulties those with disabilities face when engaging in sexual behaviour. Their talk made me think a bit more about containment and about how I could think about my own research in this context. 

The medieval city of York (photo by Ljuba Brank)
On Saturday, I gave a Pecha Kucha presentation for GenderJam, an event showcasing gender studies at the University of Edinburgh organised by the student’s union, EUSA. I presented (for six minutes and forty seconds!) on my current research looking at sexualisation from a historical perspective. I’m comparing late medieval advice texts for young people with twentieth and twenty-first century relationship advice, mainly magazines, websites and educational resources. In all of the texts I’ve looked at so far, both medieval and modern, young women are subject to strict rules, regulations and guidance that create a narrow idea of femininity that must be adopted. 

The late medieval advice texts I’m looking at are generally aimed at an upwardly mobile, ‘middle-class’, bourgeois audience. The migration of young people to towns and cities from the countryside led to heightened concerns about young women, in particular, living away from home and engaging in risky activities, as Felicity Riddy points out. 

This led to the popularity of texts such as ‘How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter’ (mid-fourteenth century). This short poem, typically, advises particular kinds of behaviour for young women that emphasise containment; women should not talk too loudly, they should not swear, they should be careful to walk in certain ways and should certainly avoid particular locations (such as the tavern, that well-known den of vices).

Kim Philips argues that this is about constraint; these young, non-elite women were clearly not seen as capable of controlling their own desires, and so required a strict framework of behavioural expectations and boundaries. The most important kind of constraint for medieval women relates to sexuality – for women, all conduct can be reduced to sexual conduct. 

I’ve found, equally, in modern advice, that similarly narrow models of femininity are endorsed that directly relate to the concerns of sexualisation; that young women are becoming too sexy too soon through things like sexualised clothing and media. 

Connecting this to wider conversations about, it seems that the idea of containment is multifarious: this is about young people containing their own bodies and behaviours, but it is also about young people being contained within an idea of normative (hetero)sexuality – of being protected from a sexualised world which some deem unsuitable for them. 

A quick search for synonyms of ‘contained’ brings up ‘controlled’, ‘suppressed’, ‘repressed’, ‘limited’, ‘restricted’, ‘confined’, ‘enclosed’, ‘inhibited’ – all ways in which young women’s sexualities, femininities and identities are forced into normative models and frameworks – the same models and frames which problematize sexual activity for young people with disabilities. 

So, if containment is part of ‘normative’ adulthood in a material sense (so, controlling urinary function for example), how does this fit with the sexually-contained body? There is clearly a relationship between containing particular bodily functions (such as ejaculation) and containing, or regulating, the sexual body.
But the sexually-contained adult body is about more than physical emissions, it is also about verbal emissions, appearance, movement and context: it is, in short, everything a body is and does (particularly a female body). So is the adult body always sexualised or sexualis-able in predetermined, limited ways? And to what extent do these discourses of containment intersect?

Equally, in our desire to ‘protect’ children from sexualised media and culture, are we subjecting them to containment? By determining that young people should not be exposed to sexualised culture (so, current media such as lad’s mags or, in medieval advice, particular spaces, such as the tavern) are we containing them within an artificial idea of what we think their childhood should look like?  

It’s clear that these are huge questions for which I do not profess to have ready answers. But I do think it is worth drawing attention to these frameworks of containment, as Slater and Liddiard did, so that we do not take them for granted, and so that we can question and challenge them. 

Today, on International Women’s Day, I think it is more important than ever to call out and recognise some of the implicit (and not so implicit) structures that continue to shape our bodies, our societies and ourselves. 


Felicity Riddy. “Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text.” Speculum 71.1 (1996): 66-86. 

Kim M. Philips. Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. 


The images used in this post are freely available for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenc via Wikimedia Commons.

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