On ‘sex-positivity’ and misunderstandings

The Pervocracy published a post on Friday, intended to set all us feminist critics of ‘sex-positive’ discourse, language, and arguments straight. According to the author, who, strangely, avoids referencing anyone or using any specific quotes to back up many of her claims, argues that feminists who critique ‘sex-positivity’ A) don’t understand what the term ‘sex-positive’ means, and B) generally are just hating on women “who wear high heels and shave their legs and…giggle and… act all flirty and give blowjobs…” We are, apparently, “disgusted” by these women and therefore we are not only “obnoxious, elitist, sexist, and counterproductive,” but our criticisms are straight up wrong.

This is a common rebuttal made by those who identify as ‘sex-positive.’ Charlie Glickman, in response to Robert Jensen’s critiques of the language and discourse of ‘sex-positivity’ also claims that Jensen just doesn’t understand it. Like Glickman, Pervocracy’s key point is that “Most critics of sex-positive feminism have not bothered to figure out what sex-positivity is.”

Glickman argues that ‘sex-positivity’ is “the idea that the only relevant measure of a particular sexual act, practice, or desire is how the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants are cared for.” And, yeah, I think we ‘get’ that. And we don’t agree. At all. We think it is much more complicated then individuals simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (though of course consent is a key part of sex, assuming that our intent is not to rape).  Where the ‘sex-positivity’ defenders seem to get off track is in this ‘judgement’ discourse. In the obsessive need to make all representations and manifestations of sex and ‘sexiness’ about individuals, the point that feminists are making is completely missed. That is that this isn’t all about individuals and that your sexuality has been influenced by a myriad of factors, all which have been shaped by patriarchy. This is not about whether or not you, as an individual, feel ‘judged.’

When we look at the arguments made in response to feminist critics, it becomes very clear, to me, who is ‘not getting it’. As I mentioned earlier, those who use the language of ‘sex-positivity’ tend to talk a lot about feminists ‘shaming’ or ‘judging’ their sexualities, which immediately frames the debate in individual terms, isolated from any greater ideology or impact. But in terms of your individual, private, sex life, is it really fair to say that, for example, pornography is something that is individual and private? Or would it be fair to say that pornography is a cultural, social phenomenon that exists as it does today within a particular framework of domination, subordination, sexism, and violence?

I think we could all agree that pornography has influenced our perceptions of women and of men, of femininity and masculinity and, of course, of sex and sexuality, as a society, as well as individuals. Turning this into a conversation about individual likes and dislikes completely misses the point. Whether or not you feel ashamed about your use of pornography or of rape fantasies, well, that could perhaps be examined further, rather than starting an entire discourse or movement specifically around your desire to feel ‘ok’ about this aspect of your sexuality as well as, then, forcing everyone else around you to tell you that it is ‘ok’ or ‘perfectly normal’. Seeing as we live in a rape culture, it might be fair to say that, culturally, you are pretty ‘normal’ if your sexuality exists based on domination/subordination and on objectifying female bodies, anyway.

In terms of the piece at Pervocracy, I suppose it makes sense that we have not been provided with references or concrete examples of these supposed feminists who are ‘disgusted’ by women who shave their legs because, really, that’s not what the arguments are about. While I think there are many, many arguments that are critical of the way in which females are supposed to present femininity, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the argument boils down to disgust.

If we were actually making the argument that women who shave their legs and give blow jobs are ‘disgusting,’ the ‘sex-positive’ crew would have something going for them, because that, on its own, is a pretty shitty argument. But it isn’t nearly as simple as that.

So, for the purposes of clarity, I’d just like to point out that I, as someone who thinks that the term ‘sex-positive’ is bunko and that those who attack feminism and feminists based on the argument that they are ‘sex-negative’ are delusional, shave my legs and give blow jobs.

I don’t engage in these practices as feminist or as revolutionary acts, because they are not, but rather, as something that I do on occasion as part of my life as a heterosexual woman living in this world. I am not dedicated to these practices to the point that I would defend them, but they happen, in my life, it’s true. Do I think I am disgusting? Not so much. Do I also believe that women shouldn’t have to shave their legs or give blow jobs in order to be viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ women? Yep. Do I think that the fact that women are expected to pretend that they don’t have any body hair in order to be viewed as real women who aren’t disgusting (and I’d like to point out that, if we actually look at who it is that thinks women or women’s bodies are disgusting, I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t feminists) is something that exists because of patriarchy? Yep. Do I think women should be obligated to give blow jobs to men in heterosexual relationships in order to maintain their relationship? No. Fuck no. But I don’t think that women who have sex with men, wear high heels, shave their legs, or flirt are disgusting. I think they exist within the constructs of a heterosexist culture and I think we learn behaviour. It’s hard to unlearn that behaviour.

Sexy? Disgusting? Patriarchy!

I wore heels every day for years. Now I tend to avoid them. Because heels are painful and ridiculous and because I like walking places and I also like my ankles and knees and back. I don’t hate myself for wearing heels or think that I was ‘disgusting’. I think that, at the time, I felt like I had to wear heels in order to appear attractive. That’s how this all works! Women learn that in order to count, they have to be sexually appealing to men.

Though Holly Pervocracy says: “It’s hard to find a piece that isn’t dripping with disgusted descriptions of women who wear high heels and shave their legs and…giggle and…act all flirty and give blowjobs,” there are strangely no references provided. I have the feeling this is because most critiques are far more comprehensive than the author claims.

Pervocracy then goes on to critique a good little piece posted over on XOJane about ‘choice feminism,’ saying:

 

“Here’s a bit from the XOJane article:

So you should go ahead and do things that are patriarchy-approved, if you want to. Buy new nail polish! Care about celebrities! Have a giant wedding! Wear a thong in your hair! Put your picture on the Internet! Look good according to particular patriarchal ideas of what looks good! Be flattered when men wolf whistle at you, literally or metaphorically! Whatever aspects of being a “Hot Chick” work for you, enjoy them. Maybe except the hair thong. But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will.

That’s right; women who are sexy are victims of mind control. You can tell by looking at them.  There’s no way a woman can choose to wear nail polish or care about celebrities.  I know I’ve been harsh on femininity myself at times (mostly I’m just harsh at the idea of me being feminine), but this goes beyond criticism of femininity.  This is a claim that femininity is a symptom of Borg assimilation.”

 

So I don’t know. I read the XOJane article, and I’m preeeetty sure that what the author was arguing wasn’t that women are “victims of mind control.” Never mind that this particular article hardly makes an argument against presentations of femininity.

I’ve written about this issue of ‘choice’ as insta-feminism before, and the argument is not that women are stupid and brainwashed, but rather that the way we act, look, and behave exist within a context of patriarchy and is always influenced by the context of our surroundings. To pretend that the choices you make somehow exist inside a bubble of your own making is either disingenuous or delusional. The fact that this context exists does not make those who have learned from that context ‘disgusting’ or products of “Borg assimilation,” it makes us human beings who live here in the now. And it makes the patriarchy powerful. So, let’s recap: women aren’t stupid, patriarchy is an insidious asshole. The more aware of this we are, the better equipped we are to challenge it.

Simply because this is where we live (in the West, in a capitalist-patriarchal system), it does not mean that we must follow along blindly. In fact, once we recognize that we are indeed part of a larger culture and that we, as individuals, are impacted and learn from the systems and ideologies which surround us, it makes it much easier to challenge and critique both the ideologies, as well as our own behaviours as they manifest themselves within this context.

Critiquing things like high heels, body hair removal, heterosexual sex as we’ve defined it in this culture is not the same as “judging women by their sexuality,” because, you know what? High heels have absolutely nothing to do with your sexuality. They are shoes. Which have been fetishized. Primarily because they restrict women’s ability to move and make them appear more fuckable and less mobile (which, of course, also makes them appear more fuckable).

Pervocracy goes on to say that: “It’s also, implicitly, a claim that women who reject femininity aren’t  influenced by patriarchy, which is even more unfortunate. ” PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE. Please. Show me where the feminists are all sitting around pretending that their actions and lives haven’t been influenced by patriarchy. SHOW. ME.

No matter how radical the feminist, I don’t believe that it is common to argue that we, as individuals, whether or not we’ve rejected high heels, leg-shaving, or blow jobs, are somehow free from this system and that it hasn’t influenced our worldview. That the moment we put on a pair of flats we suddenly escaped the male gaze or that we entered into some kind of feminist utopia because we threw out our razors. I mean, isn’t the whole point of feminism to stop pretending as though patriarchy doesn’t exist and impact our lives in a rather all-encompassing way? And then challenge that?

All of this leads up to the key point for Pervocracy, which is that: “it’s impossible for women to be accepted as human beings if we aren’t accepted as sexual beings.” Well, the problem is, of course, that women, in our society are often only viewed as sexual beings. Not whole beings, but things we use for sexual pleasure. Things that specifically exist as sexual objects. To have sex with. Or fantasize about having sex with. We don’t get to just be human beings. Because we have breasts. And therefore we must be gawked at or yelled at or harassed. Because our bodies exist for men. That’s why they’re there. How could we not be sexualized?? We have female body parts! And female body parts, as we’ve learned from porn, are too be looked at or ejaculated on to.

The problem here is that, in our society, we don’t get to choose. We don’t get to choose whether we are looked at or objectified or sexualized. It happens to us whether or not we shave, or wear high heels, or give blow jobs. That is the problem.

So it’s not that, as Pervocracy claims, “women’s dignity is contingent on our not being too sexy,” it’s that women don’t get to choose dignity. Because men always have the power to view us and treat us as sexual objects. Regardless of how “dignified” we are or we think we are.

Wouldn’t it be great if women could “be sexual and also other things.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything we did didn’t have to be sexualized. How is it that, somehow, jobs that are typically viewed as positions occupied by women, such as teachers, nurses, and secretaries, have been turned into porny fetishes and sexy halloween costumes? How is it that, in order to have a ‘healthy’ (hetero)sexual relationship there must be PIV and blow jobs? Why is it that breast-feeding in public is an issue? Women feeding babies?? WITH THEIR BOOBS?? But breasts are only for men to masturbate to! *mind explodes*

The argument feminists make around ‘sex-positive’ discourse is that, often, it refuses to question anything that has to do with sex. This means that, for example, pornography can’t be criticized, because porn is about sex. And sex is good. And it’s about me not you. Same goes for prostitution. Criticize the purchase of women’s bodies? Well, you’re criticizing somebody’s ‘sexual freedom’ (whether or not that individual’s ‘sexual freedom’ imposes on another individual’s or group’s freedom is left out of this conversation) and you can’t do that!

So we hear you. You like sex. Some of us also like sex. That does not mean that everything anyone does in a male-dominated culture, that is somehow related to the way in which sex and sexuality have been constructed within said culture is free from critique. And that critique does not equal ‘sex-negativity’, in fact it is just the opposite. Critiques of the way in which sex and sexuality are represented in our culture come from a desire for a world in which we actually get to choose whether or not we want to be sexual, whether or not we want to have sex, how we define ‘sex’, and yes, even whether or not we want to give blow jobs. It comes from a desire to live in a world where we don’t have to be sexual or sexualized.

While Pervocracy thinks that “having the sex life that’s right for you is an important part of being a self-actualized person,” I think that having a sex life that exists outside a pornified culture wherein women are presented as bodies to ejaculate onto is an important part of…um…living in a free society. I also think that choosing not to have a sex life, because believe it or not, not everyone in the entire world enjoys sex (or enjoys sex in the way in which we’ve decided that sex happens), should be an option. And, at this point, that isn’t really part of the deal.

Feminists aren’t attacking people who like sex. They are critical of the way in which sex and sexiness have been defined. Our perceptions of what ‘sexy’ is and what sex is have been, largely, defined by a male-dominated culture. ‘Sexiness’ is a male construct. It is something that is done for men. That is not the same thing as “refusing to see a woman as a powerful individual because she’s sexy” or “treat[ing] sexy women with disgust and pity.”

Yes! I believe that some individuals like rape fantasies. Do you think that could have anything at all to do with the fact that we’ve sexualized rape in this culture? I also believe that many individuals like porn (I would even go so far as to say that we, as a culture, ‘like’ porn). You are not alone, you who are turned on by porn! But do you truly believe that your love of, for example, fake boobs and shaved genitalia is something that you were born with? That, because you are turned on by dominating women, that this is just something that happened? Out of thin air? And therefore someone needs to fulfill your fantasies for you because god forbid you not be able to ejaculate whenever you feel the urge?

The point is not: ‘sex is bad’ or ‘women who like sex are bad’ or even ‘women who like to feel attractive to men are bad’ – the point is that the way in which we think we should have sex/be sexy/exist as human beings is very much a construct of living in a violent and inequitable culture, which is all very much a part of the way in which we understand ‘sex’ and ‘sexiness’ and even humanity.

 

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Progressive objectification: American Apparel’s Next Big Thing

American Apparel has never been progressive. It has never been pro-woman and it has never made much of an effort to hide it’s founder, Dov Charney‘s, pervy ways. Last year, Melanie Klein at Feminist Fatale outlined the myriad of ways in which the company has long been a terrible place for women. Charney has been accused of sexual harrassment a number of times and their consistently pornographic advertising speaks for itself.

The imagery is often defending as being ‘artsy’, as though objectification is ok when it is ‘provocative’ (like we’ve never seen women’s bodies represented in this way before, like if the photos are grainy they instantly become ‘artistic’). It’s interesting how badly we want this kind of imagery to be ‘ok’. How badly we want to justify ads that sexualize rape, that sexualize very young women, that do the exact same thing advertising and porn have done for decades, that is, use women’s bodies to sell sexism and products, all at once. We are willing to defend misogynist corporations till the end because we have been made afraid, as though true freedom of speech is coming from American Apparel’s marketing department.

But I digress. A couple of weeks ago, the company launched The Next Big Thing contest, looking for ‘curvaceous bods’ to sell their new ‘XL styles’. So now, I suppose, we are supposed to cheer them on in their progressive attempts to objectify ‘big[ger]‘ women. Wheeee! We can’t see your ribs and we will still treat you as fuckable! The future is here, feminists.

So perhaps the company has a history of completely ignoring the fact that women who are above a size 10 exist and now they are oh-so-generously trying to get into the pockets of those women too, but can this move really be viewed as anything near progress?

Apparently the answer is yes! People are indeed making this argument – that diversity is progress, meaning that if we are including ‘alternative’ bodies in sexist advertising this is a move towards a healthier body image for women. In a wee debate on the topic which took place on Hugo Schwyzer‘s Facebook page (where all great debates happen), he responded to my argument that ‘objectifying ‘big’ women is not progress.’, particularly within a context of a company that uses a ‘rape mekind of esthetic on a regular basis in their advertising, by saying: ”BUT there is something genuinely progressive (at least potentially) about expanding the diversity of images that we all see.”

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it), in fact, I think that we are missing the point entirely if we think that including the token ‘alternative’ body in places where generally the bodies are all very similar (thin, white, flawless) challenges anything substantial in terms of the ways in which our culture views women. Isn’t this the same argument made around burlesque? And ‘alternative’ porn? And by the Suicide Girls? ‘No, no, this kind of objectification is healthy! Look! These ladies have tattoos! This is art. Not porn.’ And, as Jill Filipovic wrote: “christ on a cracker, it’s American Apparel, and it’s for a contest where users rate applicants on a scale of 1 – 5, so I’m not sure their audience is thinking through the complexities of fat girls and food and sex any more deeply than “Look, titties.” Is it really subversive if no one cares? If people are still viewing you, a human being, as consumable?

What is so progressive about sticking a woman with a big butt into a porny advertisement? As far as I’m concerned, nothing.

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Of course pornography is a prisoner’s right. Because women aren’t actually human beings.

Last week, Feministing linked to a news story about a 21 year old prisoner in Michigan who filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan because, get this, he had been denied access to pornography. Yep. The nerve! I mean, isn’t objectifying women the God given right of every man in America? AND, don’t civil and human rights really only apply to men, seeing as men are the only real humans? The answers to these sarcastic questions can be answered with a less sarcastic and more somber ‘yes’.

Men (particularly white men) have long been viewed as the only true human beings who are deserving of rights and freedoms. White men have been the standard to which all other living things must measure up. And, unfortunately for all other living beings, they just can’t cut it. Failing over and over again to be white men made it difficult to justify their existences and, therefore, their rights to respect, freedom and, of course, equality.

Seeing as pornography is largely produced for, made by, sold to, and used by men; it is unsurprising that it would be viewed as a civil right, as is being argued by the prisoner. After all, men’s sexuality is represented as both uncontrollable and as, in fact, a ‘need’, like food and water. Because this dominant version of male sexuality is also very much tied to a version of masculinity that tells men (and women) that what is ‘sexy’ is to treat women as though they are not equals, assumes that masculinity equals dominance and femininity equal passivity, and also, of course, that sex must equal the penetration of women in an orifice that belongs to her, this supposed ‘need’ men have to find a sexual release seems, based on these assumptions, almost always to include the objectification and degradation of women, for example through the use of pornography and prostituted women.

This argument for pornography as a civil right may sound preposterous to most. Perhaps you  view pornography as a privilege, not a right and, seeing as the idea of imprisoning someone is that they lose privileges, one might argue that a prisoner loses the ‘privilege’ of access to pornography. You may even believe that pornography is a right, but that prisoners should lose some rights, as punishment, and that one of those ‘rights’ might indeed be pornography. But I’m not particularly interested in those arguments. This isn’t an issue of ‘prisoner rights’. This is an issue that demonstrates the way in which we, as a society, have decided that women’s rights are not human rights and rather, that, when it comes to rights, ‘human’ is still congruous with ‘man’.

‘Only in America’, I thought immediately. Only in America would a person be so selfish, so deluded, to think that their individual rights should exist at the expense of the human rights of others. And this is exactly what pornography does. It removes the rights of women to be human. Women in pornography are not represented as whole human beings, they are represented as things to ejaculate onto or into. Women, in pornography, are not represented as women, they are represented as body parts. So when we’re talking rights, human rights, civil rights, whatever, why a) are we not talking about the way in which pornography infringes on the rights of women and b) why do we assume that men’s individual rights should come at the expense of women’s rights? Is it possible we still believe that ‘human’ really equals ‘man’? And that, therefore, of course, we would consider it the ‘right’ of men to use women as they see fit, regardless of the ways in which that use might impact women’s lives?

So there is problem number one. Just that wee tiny issue of women still not being viewed as actual, valuable human beings and respected members of our society. Problem number two is, perhaps, even more baffling. That is, of course, that feminists would agree with the concept of pornography as a ‘right’, as communicated within the Feministing post.  Not only does the author of the post agree with the idea that pornography should indeed be the right of a prisoner, as to argue otherwise would be ‘indefensible in court’, but the justifications for said agreement are that a) a sexually satisfied prisoner would probably be more well-behaved in prison than a sexually frustrated one, and b) the author ‘feels passionately about sex positivity and fighting anti-sex and anti-porn moral crusades’.

I’m feeling more than a little icky about what that first point implies, which is that, if men are not sexually satisfied, they may be more aggressive. And of course this is nothing new. This kind of assumption about the nature of men is often used to justify the ‘need’ for prostitution and pornography. Vancouver Madame, Scarlett Lake, has even said (as part of a presentation to a Women’s Studies class I took during my undergrad) that men would be less likely to rape if they were sexually serviced by ‘sex workers’. So what are we to learn here if not that it is natural for men to be violent and even to rape if they are sexually frustrated and that, therefore, they must have access to women, in whatever form they see fit, if other women (you know, because we seem to believe that women working in the sex industry deserve to be abused and raped in order to spare more privileged women…) are going to be kept safe from the uncontrollable men. We need to stop justifying male aggression as though it is simply part of their nature. We need to stop perpetuating this idea that male sexuality is uncontrollable or violent. It isn’t true and it is dangerous. In many ways.

And then we come to the concluding paragraph. I am trying very hard not to just scream and  pull out all my hair every time I see someone equate feminist criticisms of pornography with being ‘anti-sex’ or a ‘moral crusade’…But it ain’t easy. Particularly when these kinds of myths are being perpetuated by other feminists. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to view pornography as an infringement on the human rights of women. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to talk about pornography as something that hurts women. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to argue that pornography perpetuates misogyny and sexism. In fact, it is ‘pro-sex’, if you want to call it that. Which I don’t. Because terms such as ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pro-sex’ are meaningless and fraught with all kinds of fallacious implications.

Pornography limits our vision of sexuality. It prevents us from achieving true equality. It sexualizes, as Andrea Dwokin said, inequality. It limits how we see women and how we see men. It perpetuates an objectifying male gaze. Pornography has very much structured the way in which we see female and male sexuality. These aren’t images that simply disappear from our minds once they are no longer in front of us. They stick. We are a culture that has been shaped by pornography. It isn’t just a fantasy, it is the lived realities of women (and of men). So I don’t think it is ‘anti-sex’ to desire something different, something that can be understood as real freedom. I would like freedom from these images, personally, but I would also like all women to be free from, not only these images, but from the reality of their lives inside a pornified culture. We know full well that images in advertising and on television impact our perceptions of reality and yet, for some reason, we continue to believe that watching sexist pornography won’t impact real people’s lives.

I don’t think that pointing this out is ‘anti-sex’ and I think that this term is anti-feminist. Particularly because it is used against feminists and feminist arguments constantly. It goes right along with calling feminists angry man haters. It is a way to dismiss feminist arguments and I really wish that feminists wouldn’t play into that. Criticizing pornography is not a ‘moral crusade’. It is not ‘anti-sex’. It is what we all must do, as progressive people, in order to even think about, even imagine, true equality.

The backlash has broadened and is coming from, not only those who wish to preserve dominant ideology and systems of power, but from within the feminist movement. We are using ‘sex-positivity’ as a way to defend the rights of men to infringe upon the human rights of women. So here is what I ask: please stop with the anti-feminist language. Please stop perpetuating untruths about feminist critiques of pornography. Please stop equating sex-positivity with being pro-porn and being ‘anti-sex’ with being anti-porn. Actually, please just stop using those terms altogether. They mean absolutely nothing. There is no such thing as being ‘anti-sex’. Will this be the last time I make this request? Of course not. Will this even be the last time I make this request of other feminists? Sadly, no. Feminism is in danger, and you need not look any further than ‘sex-positivity’ in order to see that.

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Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Hugo Schwyzer

Originally posted at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog.

Hugo Schwyzer is a gender studies professor at a college in Southern California, a writer, and was an organizer of Slutwalk LA. Though our opinions and positions diverge significantly in some areas, in an effort to engage in civil debate and have an honest conversation, Hugo and I have asked one another 5 questions, posting our respective responses here and at hugoschwyzer.net

My responses to Hugo’s questions will be posted on Wednesday. I look forward to hearing readers thoughts and comments on these conversations. Hugo and I will respond to one another the following week and I would like to be able to include some of your comments in this response.

Thanks to Hugo for his interest in and willingness to engage in these conversations and thank you to commenters for engaging.

The following is a series of questions, asked by myself, and Hugo’s responses:

Meghan: 1) The role of men in feminism:

Stephen Heath wrote, in Male Feminism: “Men’s relation to feminism is an impossible one,” going on to say that “Men have a necessary relation to feminism” but “that this is a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. Their voices and actions, not ours: no matter how “sincere,” “sympathetic” or whatever, we are always also in a male position which brings with it all the implications of domination and appropriation, everything precisely that is being challenged, that has to be altered. Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism—to be a feminist—is then only also the last feint in the long history of their colonization.”

So while men can and should, of course, be actors in the feminist movement, and need not be passive or voiceless, I feel that feminism is grounded in the experience, insights and perspectives of women. Do you agree? What role can men play in feminism? How can you speak about and to feminists without dominating the conversation? Where do you see yourself in this movement?

Hugo: Respectfully, I think Heath is wrong. Look, men have been part of the feminist movement since its inception (look at the many male signers of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848.) When NOW was founded in the Sixties, it was designed to be the National Organization for Women, not the National Organization of Women. Gender identity happens on a spectrum; it’s not a binary which can be neatly divided into “subject” and “object.”

That said, men do have to be very careful to avoid taking dominant roles in feminism. I wrote a post last year called “Step Up and Step Back” in which I said the following:

“Step up” means that men who choose to identify as feminists (or, if you prefer, as “feminist allies” or “pro-feminists”) are called to take an active role in the anti-sexist movement. Building a genuinely egalitarian and non-violent society requires everyone’s involvement. Empowering women to defend themselves from rapists and harassers is important; raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of rape or harassment is anathema is also vital. We need men of all ages in the feminist movement to “step up” and commit themselves to embodying egalitarian principles in their private and public lives.

Stepping up means being willing to listen to women’s righteous anger. That doesn’t mean groveling on the ground in abject apology merely for having a penis — contrary to stereotype, that’s not what feminists (at least not any I’ve ever met) want. That means really hearing women, without giving into the temptation to become petulant, defensive, or hurt. It means realizing that each and every one of us is tangled in the Gordian knot of sexism, but that men and women are entangled in different ways that almost invariably cause greater suffering to the latter. Stepping up doesn’t mean denying that, as the old saying goes, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (TPHMT). It means understanding that in feminist spaces, to focus on male suffering both suggests a false equivalence and derails the most vital anti-sexist work.

Stepping up means, of course, being willing to confront other men. I’ve said over and over again that the acid test of a man’s commitment to feminism often comes not only in terms of how he treats women, but also how he speaks about women when he’s in all-male spaces. Many young men are earnest about living out feminist principles when around women. But get them around their “bros” and their words change. Or, as is more often the case, they may not join in on sexist banter — but they fail to raise vocal objection to it. Stepping up means challenging the jokes and complaints and objectifying remarks that are so much a part of the conversation in all-male spaces. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a sine qua non of being a feminist ally.

Stepping back means acknowledging that in almost every instance, feminist organizations ought to be led by women. It means that men in feminist spaces need to check themselves before they pursue leadership roles. While that might seem unfair, arguing that biological sex should have no bearing on who wields authority in a feminist organization fails to take into account the myriad ways in which the wider world discriminates against women. Even now, we still socialize young men to be assertive and young women to be deferential. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but not enough to disprove that rule.) Part of undoing that socialization for women means pushing themselves to take on leadership positions even if they feel awkward about doing so; part of undoing that socialization for young men means holding themselves back from those same offices.

Stepping back doesn’t mean men should never speak up in feminist spaces. Stepping back is not about silently serving in the background. Stepping back is about the willingness to engage in self-reflection, to defer, and remembering that the most important job feminist men have within the movement is not to lead women but to serve as role models to other men. Stepping back is a way of renouncing the “knight in shining armor” tendency that afflicts many young men who first come to anti-sexist work. Women need colleagues and partners on this journey, not rescuers or substitute father figures.

2) One of the primary places of debate within feminist discourse lies in sex work; prostitution, pornography stripping, etc. How can a man retain credibility as a feminist and speak about these issues? Within a context of patriarchy and within a context wherein men are the primary buyers of sex and the primary audience for mainstream pornography (and the subjects of this pornography are, primarily, women and the sex that is being bought is, primarily, from women), is it even possible for a man, as an ally to feminists, to take a position that does not actively reject these industries? Do you actively reject these industries as part of your feminism?

Well, I think it might well be possible to do so, though I don’t. I don’t use pornography as part of my sexual life, and I don’t employ sex workers. Sex work is deeply problematic. At the same time, I’m confronted with the reality that a growing number of young women use pornography, and that there has been a concerted effort to create a genuinely feminist pornography – though the degree to which that’s a viable project remains a subject of contention. I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.

But I work with allies, overwhelmingly female, who are sex workers or advocates for sex workers. Some are the stereotypically privileged few who are outside the norm, but some who claim enthusiasm about sex work are from working-class backgrounds where financial necessity was the driving reason behind why they entered the industry. Nothing could be less feminist than for me to tell them “No, you don’t like what you’re doing. Actually,you hate it and you’re being exploited.” The sine qua non of male feminism is the capacity to hear women’s lived experiences. And when it comes to porn (both in terms of production and consumption) and other forms of sex works, women don’t speak with one voice.

I am committed to being an advocate for sex worker rights, committed to avoiding participating in sex work as a consumer, and committed to listening.

3) If I say to you: “Pornography hurts me, it hurts me deeply, and it hurts women”, how do you respond?

I hear you. I acknowledge it’s hurtful to you personally, and I acknowledge that porn has done tremendous harm to women. But not all porn is the same, and not everyone who works in porn experiences the same set of circumstances. We need to do more than say “porn bad”. We need to say, what is the long-term feminist response? Is it saying that women’s bodies on a screen or in a magazine can never be gazed at with desire because that action is inherently hurtful? I’m not ready to go that far.

I’ve had literally dozens of current and former sex workers as my students over the years. (The ones who have come out to me.) I teach at a community college a few miles from the heart of the commercial porn industry here in L.A. And I’ve heard stories of rape and abuse and exploitation, and also heard stories of empowerment (a term that for all its fluffiness we do well not to dismiss lightly) and pleasure. There just isn’t one narrative. That’s the mistake Bob Jensen made in his brilliant but ultimately one-sided “Getting Off”. Just as there’s more to the movie industry than what comes out of Disney or Warner Brothers, there’s more to porn than what comes out of Vivid Video or Max Hardcore.

Part of the problem is NO ONE seems to acknowledge nuance here. One side says “porn is harmless fun and really causes no problems at all”, while the other seems to say “all porn is bad, feminist porn is and always will be an oxymoron, and visual depictions of sexuality are inherently exploitative and can’t be redeemed.” That’s a hell of a false dichotomy.

4) You have said “Women are not commodities whose value is based on their own fluctuating sense of self-worth.” From my perspective, escort agencies, and really, the prostitution of women in any form, legitimizes the idea the women’s bodies and lives are for sale. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? As an ally to feminists, and to women, what action do you / have you taken in order to end this commodification of women, women’s bodies, and female sexuality? Do you see the commodification and objectification of women as tied to violence against women?

I too am deeply troubled by escorts. I cannot imagine paying for sex the same way I pay for, say, a back massage. My own instinct is to be drawn to the Nordic model, in which selling sex is not a crime (as long as it’s your own body you sell and not another’s) but buying it is. But I hear from many responsible sex worker advocacy groups I respect (SWOP, for example) who are critical of the Swedish model and who claim it has made things worse.

All rape and sexual violence is linked to a profound sense of male entitlement. Men rape and hit and abuse women because they’ve been led to believe that women’s bodies are male property. But the sense that men have that their desire gives them rights over women’s bodies is older than the porn industry. Indeed, as porn and other forms of sex work have become more ubiquitous, there has been no concomitant increase in rape. Countries that make porn illegal do not have demonstrably better conditions for women than those that permit it. Sex work can be a manifestation of the problem, but it isn’t the root.

5) You have been one of the primary organizers and spokespeople for Slutwalk LA and you have been very supportive of Slutwalks as a whole. While, generally, Slutwalks have claimed not to take a position on sex work, other than to stand as allies with sex workers, recently, Slutwalk Las Vegas presented this statement on their Facebook page: “Slut isn’t a look, it’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence” Can you comment on this statement?

I feel that this statement narrows the conversation in a dangerous way. Framing prostitution as work, as a job just like any other job and as something that women enjoy, benefits men. Even framing prostitution as ‘sex work’ seems, to me, to take a position – would you say that Slutwalk LA does, in fact, take a position on ‘sex work’?

Well, as you probably know, the Toronto organizers “released” all the satellite SlutWalks to follow their own paths based on the local “facts on the ground.” So there is no official SlutWalk position on sex work. (Parenthetically, I’ll say I do what my friends in the sex worker community have asked, and that is use the term sex work to refer to the whole spectrum of sexual commerce from stripping to massage parlors to porn to prostitution.)

Are there women who enjoy doing sex work? I’ve known women, students and friends, who insist that they do. I’ve known other women, often former sex workers, who insist that it’s impossible for a sex worker genuinely to enjoy sex with a john. Again, I think we have to stay away from sweeping statements. But I’m perfectly prepared to say that the number of sex workers who do it for pleasure is dwarfed by the number who do it for survival.

SlutWalk LA, in its very explicit inclusion of the sex worker community, wasn’t only standing up for those women who “like what they do.” Sex work is with us, and will continue to be with us – it’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason. So while we figure out what the best strategy is (legalization, decriminalization, Swedish model, New Zealand model, intensified criminalization) we need to meet the needs of real sex workers. Even a sex worker who doesn’t enjoy sex with johns distinguishes between a forcible rape by a client (or, as is frequently the case, a cop) and sex that has been negotiated and compensated. The difference is not insignificant. We can’t let a future best-case scenario (a world in which sex isn’t commodified at all) stop us from meeting the real needs of real women right now.

If SlutWalk LA has a position on sex work, it is that sex workers deserve the same legal and cultural protections against rape as everyone else. And getting them those protections requires bringing their work out of the shadows without stigma.

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Slutwalks, sex work, and the future of feminism

If this is the future of feminism I am afraid. This is not intended to slight Jessica Valenti’s recent article in The Washington Post and this is not to say that  Valenti isn’t right about the power of grassroots organizing and the way in which it can be incredibly inspiring to watch young women get together and fight for their lives. Protest is good. Conversations are good. And MAN has all this Slutwalk stuff started a conversation.

So it’s not so much that I think the protest is bad, or that all these conversations have been bad. This many people talking about feminism? Pretty neat. What scares me is where that conversation has headed. What scares me is this image, taken from Slutwalk Las Vegas’ Facebook page:

"Slut isn't a look, it's an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it's never an invitation to violence."

"Slut isn't a look, it's an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it's never an invitation to violence."

While, as far as I can tell, most Slutwalks claim to not have not taken any position on ‘sex work’ or on pornography, other than to stand in solidarity with sex workers (which, I believe, most feminists do) – I do see a very clear position in this language. Let’s first be clear that we are all in agreement that there is no such thing as an invitation to violence and that there is not a single person who deserves to be raped, regardless of the position they occupy in society, or the clothes they wear. Let’s also be clear about the position that has been taken here, and that there is, in fact, a position being taken, that is: sex work is something that is enjoyed by women.

So the discourse has been narrowed, the conversation has been ended. This one little sentence is huge. By framing ‘sex work’* as something enjoyed by women, we change the direction of the conversation entirely. We remove the context of gendered oppression that is inherent to ‘sex work’; we erase survival sex workers who do not ‘choose’ this work in any way that resembles a free and autonomous choice, but rather must do it in order to survive, (so no, these women are not doing this ‘work’ because they ‘enjoy’ it); we perpetuate a male fantasy that says: women enjoy being dominated (because if you think men buying sex from women has nothing to do with power, you are living a fantasy), they enjoy being penetrated (some women do, many women do not, certainly all women do not enjoy being penetrated by strangers), they enjoy servicing men and catering to their every desire; we perpetuate the idea that prostitution is something that is ‘natural’; and we remove financial need and a context of capitalism from the discourse. Women do not exist to service men. ‘Sex work’ is about male pleasure via female bodies. This is not to say there there are not exceptions to this argument, but those exceptions are not the rule. The purpose of prostitution is male pleasure. The mere fact (and this is no mere fact) that women are paid by men removes autonomy and negates an argument for female pleasure as the primary purpose of sex work.

In this one sentence, an opportunity for conversation has been removed, thousands of women’s lives have been erased, and misogynist discourse has been made front and center. It doesn’t feel like feminist activism to me. It doesn’t even feel like feminism.

I want to be clear that this one image, this one sentence, is not representative of all Slutwalk satellites, nor is it representative of all those involved in organizing or marching. It is, though, representative of Slutwalk Las Vegas. And it is representative of where this conversation has headed under the umbrella of Slutwalk. It is something we must pay close attention to. This is one small sentence that says a lot.

This is not the future of feminism. This is the status quo. This is the past and the future of patriarchy if we allow it.

*I have used quotations around ‘sex work’ because I do not wish to label prostitution as ‘sex work’, though many others do. I use the term ‘sex work’ in places here as a reference to the discourse I am referring to.

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