Prostitution And Vaginal ‘Fragility’: Why Bizarre Female Cycling Bans Persist
5:00 pm, August 17th | by Amy Tennery
North Korean officials ruled this week that women within its borders will now be allowed to ride bicycles, following an 16-year ban on women and cycling in the country. The move likely breaks a glass ceiling you weren’t even aware of — the issue of women and bike-riding hardly seems like a hot topic. But the ban, and the circumstances surrounding it, reflects bizarre attitudes about women, sexuality and freedom that persist.
Why ban women from bike-riding? Officials in North Korea decided on the ban in ’96, after deciding that bicycling wasn’t “sufficiently feminine,” according to NBC. What’s so “unfeminine” about bike-riding is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s the straddling? Sure, that sounds ridiculous but historic biking bans show that assumption might not be too far off. Bikes, both literally and figuratively, reflect a kind of feminine “liberation” that’s often perceived as dangerous.
Didn’t know North Korea banned women from riding bikes in the first place? You’re probably not alone. Like so many restrictions on women and athletics (the Saudi ban on women and the Olympics comes to mind), the ban wasn’t largely in the public eye until it was overturned. And, lest you think this utterly perplexing regulation existed only in North Korea, let us assure you, it’s not an isolated thing:
Numerous reports show bicycling is barred from women in Taliban regions. In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to bike, a regulation that’s consistent with its “no-ladies-driving” policy, especially on public roads. Late last month, Ayatollah Elm Alhuda argued that Iranian women should only bike in their backyards. “It is not a sign for a woman to sit on a bicycle saddle, provided she does so indoors or in her backyard. But if she cycles in public,” he said, according to Mohabat News. “Her movements and posture will lead to corruption and prostitution.” (Bet you had no idea how risky that spin class was.)
And while bike-riding might seem like an innocuous issue, cultural attitudes toward bicycling women in late 1800s America (when bikes make their widespread debut in the U.S.) show the hesitancy toward ladies on two-wheelers has persisted over the decades — and some of the rationale behind banning women from bikes sounds eerily familiar more than a century later.
Peter Zheutlin, a journalist and great-grandnephew of pioneering cyclist Annie Londonderry explained it quite well on his site:
That bike riding might be sexually stimulating for women was also a real concern to many in the 1890s. It was thought that straddling a saddle combined with the motion required to propel a bicycle would lead to arousal… Some critics warned the bicycle was harmful to a woman’s health and all kinds of arguments were thrown up to try and discourage women from taking to the wheel. The fragility and sensitivity of the female organism was a common theme.
Vaginas: If you ain’t pleasuring ‘em, you’re wrecking ‘em. That these two concerns bookended this way says much about women’s sexuality and “Vag Panic.”
What happened to change North Korean officials’ minds is up for endless speculation. Can can only assume they realized rumors of ladies’ vaginal “fragility” were greatly exaggerated.