Anders Behring Breivik's Manifesto and Sexual Shame

Before Anders Behring Breivik confessed to killing 77 people in Norway last month, he published a manifesto that is nothing short of horrific. And while much has been said about his racist viewpoints, his beliefs about women’s sexuality have received far less discussion.

In his manifesto, Breivik pins what he sees as social ruin on women’s sexual choices and number of partners. He shames his own mother for contracting meningitis because of sexual “immorality” caused by the “feminist sexual revolution.” In Breivik’s ideal society, all women are heterosexual homemakers who are responsible for maintaining the sexual standards that he defines.

In the light of this, I asked Boston activist Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Want: the Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, for her take on Breivik’s beliefs. Friedman explains that, within Breivik’s framework, women are “the guardians of sexual morality” — an insidious attempt at social control. “If women are doing anything other than saying ‘no’ to sex or withholding sex unless they are married, any negative behaviors you can relate to sex in our name become our fault,” says Friedman.

Similar attempts at sexual control are apparent in cases of assault, for instance, when a woman is said to be “asking for it” because she is dressed in a certain way, seemingly removing the blame from her attacker. These kinds of stories — of women who are sexually at risk — also keep us afraid and more easily controlled. Take, for instance, the need to be walked home by a man: “The stranger in the bushes is largely fantastical,” says Friedman. “In terms of numbers, men are more in danger of violence at the hands of a stranger.”

In response, Friedman calls for open communication. “We need to talk about what and what not to be afraid of,” she says.

Friedman also suggests better and more positive education as a means of fighting sexual shaming: “In most sex education today, women’s sexual pleasure is completely invisible.” If young people can’t get good information about sexual enjoyment and identities, they will turn elsewhere — to the Internet, for instance — which Friedman says can be a poor example. Instead, she has a vision of Boston’s universities joining forces to fight sexual shaming and violence.

“Schools often don’t want to admit to a problem on their campus, but it would be easier if they worked together, all at once,” she says.

And seeing as shame often manifests by singling people out, I couldn’t agree more.