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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Grasping at Straws: Comparing Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street

Recently, there have been a slew of articles written about women and Occupy Wall Street. Particularly, the need for a feminist presence in the movement and the recognition that women are often the ones who suffer the most under an inequitable economic system.

In an unfortunate, but hardly surprising, male-centric lapse of judgement, some dudes decided that the best way to get folks out to protest was to turn women into sacrificial lambs, with a site and video called “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.” I mean, why bother paying any attention to women if they aren’t turning you on? In fact, why bother doing anything at all if you can’t reinforce your male power by objectifying women?

Though this kind of attitude towards women in progressive movements is nothing new, this particular brand of douchebaggery doesn’t seem to at all be representative of the Occupy  movement as a whole. This is, in fact, a movement that is very much relevant to women and very much needs a feminist perspective within it. As pointed out by , in a piece posted at the Ms. Magazine Blog:

Because we are already starting from a disadvantaged position, women are often among the hardest hit in economically troubled times, and this is especially true for women of color. Women are also disproportionately impacted when states slash public services, as so many have done in recent months. Because they are far more likely than men to be single parents struggling to provide for a family on a single income, many women are devastated by cuts to family assistance programs. And as we have seen repeatedly with the threatened federal cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, as well as several individual states’ recent cuts to family planning programs, women’s health services are considered by many politicians to be expendable.

This is a movement that is very much about us, the 51%. Not only is corporate capitalism a system that is tied to and thrives via a deep connection to patriarchy and a hierarchical  system of power that is racist and sexist at its core, but it thrives on the backs of women, literally.

A flier created by New York feminists, Rebecca Sloan, Cathy Barbarits, and Kathy Miriam that is being handed out at Occupy Wall Street, points out that the unpaid (and underpaid) labour done by women are the legs of the capitalist system:

Global capitalism is made possible by women’s unpaid work in the household…In Canada unpaid work is estimated to be worth up to 41% of the GDP.  The shifting the burden of domestic labor from elite women to the domestic laborers (maids) culled from subordinate groups of women (immigrants; women of color; poor women) is another part of this same process of exploitation.

Women of colour, in particular, are most often the ones who are left behind and stepped on in a system that functions on economic inequality.  They are the ones who end up doing the work that white women of privilege don’t want to do and they are the ones who are least likely to be able to climb past the glass ceiling and into positions of power.

It is also imperative that we recognize the way in which these exploitative systems lead to and encourage sex work and trafficking, another industry that impacts marginalized women and women of colour particularly. As pointed out in the same flier:

Trafficking occurs in a context of global economic inequalities and a failure to respect the human rights of a majority of the world’s population. Enormous amounts of people find themselves unable to provide for their families and are forced into situations of extreme desperation.

Women who are poor and women who are vulnerable are often the ones who have no choice but to resort to sex work, who are prostituted, and who are trafficked.

Indeed, the Occupy movement, is about us, the 51%.

So, how does this all relate to Slutwalk, as the title of this article implies? Well, it doesn’t, really, although in what is perhaps an act of desperation on the parts of Slutwalk organizers and participants who are watching their briefly novel movement drift into the background in the face of a movement that is truly radical and potentially revolutionary, a couple of people have tried very hard to link the two movements.

An article by Bryce Covert, at Alternet, imagines that Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street are linked via ‘raw emotion’, and because both movements are ‘calling out the culture at large.’

In another piece written by Hanqing Chen, entitled: NYC SlutWalk Gets OWS Fever, the author writes that SlutWalk’s activists “said the Wall Street protests have paved the way forward in building attention for their own movement,” imagining that they will “partner with Occupy Wall Street to spread their own message.” So first Slutwalk tries to co-opt feminism, and now they want to co-opt the Occupy movement? Well, good luck.

The differences between the two movements are numerous. But perhaps most important is that which was recently pointed out by Eve Ensler:

The genius of Occupy Wall Street is that so far it is not brandable and that’s what makes its potential so daunting, so far reaching, so inclusive, and so dangerous. It cannot be defined and so it cannot be sold, as a sound bite or a political party or even a thing. It can’t be summed up and dismissed.

The key to Slutwalk’s popularity was that it was brandable right from the get go. It was salable. Slutwalk was loved by the media and by many because it provided exactly what mainstream culture wants and needs in order to sell a product: women’s bodies. It replicated images and messages that are easily consumed by the dominant culture, that is: women are consumable and they are to be looked at. It told us that which we already know: don’t bother looking at or listening to women unless they are up on a stage, dancing around in their underwear for an audience.

Whereas the Occupy movement is a direct response to a neoliberal capitalist system, Slutwalk was a ‘movement’ (if you want to call it that) that sprang from and embraced neoliberal capitalism. It sold women and it sold sex work as empowerment. Slutwalk bought right into to everything that we are being sold, turned it around and told the world that this was the route to liberation. Most of all, it sold a message of individualism – the key to the success of the capitalist system. Capitalism is all about the message of indivualism vs collectivism, man is an island under a capitalist system, and we are all to believe that if we work hard enough, as individuals, we can be successful. Health care, social safety nets, affordable housing? Those things are all a pain in the ass if you’re already wealthy and privileged. Those things don’t affect you if you aren’t poor or marginalized, so why bother? Other people aren’t your responsibility if you are a capitalist and if something makes you feel good then gosh darn it, you should do it!

Sound familiar? Slutwalk argued, right off the bat, that this was a movement all about individuals and that, if what they were doing, as individuals, was impacting other women negatively, well, too freakin bad. If you think sex work is great, then it’s great, regardless of how it impacts and hurts and exploits other women; women with less privilege than yourself. If you want to call yourself a slut and encourage men to call you a slut (because now that’s empowering!), then do it! Even if it throws other women under the bus in the process.

Slutwalk followed the rules. They bought into a patriarchal, neoliberal, capitalist message and tried to sell it back to us as revolutionary. But it wasn’t.

The Occupy movement never followed the rules. They did not partner with the cops and they didn’t ask for permits.The Occupy movement, rather, is challenging and confronting  ‘the rules’ and is taking on the ideologies of capitalism and individualism. They are not asking for permission.

Occupy Wall Street did not build a movement that would be salable to the mainstream media. They did not build a movement with the specific intention to attract the attention of the media. They did not need a shocking and controversial name to sell themselves and they certainly did not need pole-dancing women to build momentum.

This does not mean that the Occupy movement is free of, or should escape criticism.

Peter Gelderloos notes, in an article for counterpunch.org that this movement must be careful to build on what has been learned from past progressive movements:

All of these [past radical] movements constitute lessons learned that can be passed down to aid future struggles. So often, the mistakes that defeat a revolutionary movement are repeated.

Gelderloos goes on to say:

In general, people in the United States face severe disadvantages in fighting power. The popular struggles of past generations were brutally crushed and critical lessons were not passed on. People have to start from scratch in a society constructed to meet the needs of money. In part because of this, people in the US have a unique opportunity to influence struggles worldwide, should they overcome the obstacles and turn these protests into something powerful.

And we, as feminists, must ensure that this movement includes an analysis of the way in which women are particularly disenfranchised under a capitalist system and ensure that women are not relegated to a position that requires they are ‘seen and not heard’ as the ‘Hot Chicks of Wall Street’ video does.

Yes, there are flaws in the Occupy movement, but it hasn’t begun from a position that is complicit in the very systems it claims to confront. It has not sent a message of individualism and it hasn’t told those who dare to critique it that if they don’t like it they can sit down and shut up.

Any comparisons between Slutwalk and the Occupy movement are desperate, if anything, as the focus moves away (finally) from half-naked women with the word ‘slut’ plastered across their faces and bodies, to a movement that demands the system change, and doesn’t simply aim to re-frame oppression and encourage women to make the most of  what we’ve got. What we need is something new, something drastically different – and that is going to take more than media coverage and personal catharsis.

 

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This week in faux-feminism (or, seven days of rage)

 

Such a busy week! So much to do, so much to say. Too much to say, in fact. The rage, it is almost paralyzing.

So instead of writing a real blog post I made a list!

 

This week’s faux-feminist round-up:

1)  Shira Tarrant explains why, if we don’t join Slutwalk, we are ruining feminism for everyone.

2)  Blog posted at Feministing explains that anti-exploitation, anti-violence, anti-misogyny, anti-oppression, and anti-rape actually equals ‘anti-sex.’

3)  Feministing commenter explains that radical feminism is “not true feminism” and that it “does not belong on college campuses or anywhere” because of “frequent racism.” So like, in comparison to our completely free-of-racism friend Slutwalk? Possibly the least radical ‘feminist’ ‘movement’ ever? Got it, folks? Liberal feminism = good-thing-we’re-all-so-awesome-let’s-keep-patting-each-other-on-the-back-while-explaining-to-women-of-colour-that-the-n-word-isn’t-actually-racist/offensive,  radical feminism = WE’RE NOT QUITE SURE BUT WE KNOW IT’S BAD.

4)  Ms. Magazine blog readers leave Andrea Dworkin off the Top 100 (yes! 100! Sounds like a lot, right? Comprehensive-like!) list of best feminist non-fiction (how it is even possible to compile a list of 100 feminist books and omit Dworkin is a mystery to me).

5)  And finally, I don’t actually know when this happened, but I discovered, just this week, that SWAAY has compiled a virtual hit hate list of radical feminists. Just to, you know, reinforce their anti-feminist perspective. Handy!

 

Oh yes, it’s been a busy week.

 

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Slutwalk NYC: More of the same

I’ve got to be honest here. I truly believed that Slutwalk NYC was going to be different. Not different enough to lose the ‘slut’, and therefore, not different enough to convince me that this ‘movement’ was one I wanted anything to do with, but perhaps different enough to hold validity beyond personal catharsis. Maybe this Slutwalk would actually say something radical. Maybe this Slutwalk would comment on systematic oppression. Maybe even this Slutwalk would present a challenge to male power.

It didn’t.

Today, this video was posted, along with a blog which notes, among other things, the frustration felt by many about the way in which the media has focused “on the most elaborately undressed and risque marchers.”

 

 

Strangely, this video did just that. Which leads me to believe that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Slutwalks are actually like? Maybe those images we see of women marching down the streets in their underwear holding signs that read: “sluts say yes!” are an honest representation of what actually happens at Slutwalks? Is it really just the media manipulating the message?

In any case, there are a few reasons I thought this particular Slutwalk might, just might be different:

a) Slutwalk has been critiqued to death by so many feminists that one could fairly assume that some of these critiques might actually have sunk in.

b) This semi-promising promotional video which, unlike many other Slutwalks, actually mentions the word ‘feminism’:

c) I actually spoke with some Slutwalk NYC organizers who seemed to have put a lot of thought into this particular event and didn’t necessarily agree with the idea that we could or should be working to ‘reclaim slut’

d) Wishful thinking?

 

And hey, I wasn’t there. There are women who were there this past weekend, at the march, who reflected on it with mixed, though relatively positive feelings.

But then there was the video.

Between the women dancing and posing on stage in their underwear, the women with ‘tramp’ and ‘slut’ inked onto their bodies, the slogans: “I have the pussy so I make the rules”, the pole-dancing, and the men, standing on the sidelines grinning, leering, and taking photos, this video really says it all. Or it says a lot, at least.

A feminist ‘movement’ wherein men take photos of women dancing around stripper poles? Sounds radical!

I’ve talked about Slutwalk with so many people, coming from so many different places (participants, organizers, criticizers, and those who’ve never even heard of it before) that I think, at this point, I have a fairly good understanding of why women participate. Slutwalk does make many women feel empowered. It does make women feel as though they no longer are alone, or that they no longer need to feel ashamed about their sexual assault. And that’s great. But where do we go from here? How do we make change so that women actually aren’t raped anymore? So that men no longer feel that they have the right to access women’s bodies? So that women no longer feel like every move they make is being watched and sexualized?

These are all questions that I feel continue not to be addressed by any Slutwalk. Somehow, connections between objectification, the oppressive male gaze, sex industries, and rape culture are not being made. And when they are made, they are quickly shut down with retorts that accuse critics of being either ‘sex-negative’ (spoiler alert! There’s no such thing!) or of hating sex workers. And again dialogue is squashed, critiques are silenced, and Slutwalk rages on, claiming to have ‘reinvigorated the feminist movement.’

Now, I think we can reasonably excuse some of the mistakes made by the original Slutwalk held in Toronto. It was reactionary and it was organized very quickly as a direct response to an incident which happened in Toronto. This is not to say that we should not have critiqued this event, as there were many, many problematic aspects of that original Slutwalk which deserved critique and questioning, but rather that, at this point, I would have thought things might have changed a little. I thought that, perhaps, after all this discussion and debate, some of this discussion and debate might have been heard and then reflected in future events. But no. Instead, we see the same old thing.

As many have pointed out, and Keli Goff points out, once again in an article called ‘Dear Feminists, Will You Also be Marching in N***erwalk?’: “you can’t  “reclaim” a word defined by a predominant group in power unless you are a part of that group.” And to that, I would add: you can’t ‘reclaim’ the male gaze. It doesn’t belong to you and it doesn’t empower you. It is a disempowering gaze. Which is why I find it so absurd that this march, supposedly against rape culture, is so focused on performing for the male gaze and calling it empowerment.

One woman in the video states: “we should not blame women for their own sexuality,” – but what does that mean? Is pole-dancing about female sexuality? Or is it about performing for the male gaze? Is rape about female sexuality? Are fishnets about female sexuality?

There appears to be some deep, deep confusion about the difference between what men, in a patriarchy, have decided is ‘sexy’ and what ‘female sexuality’ is. The fact that we don’t even know – that we can’t even imagine such a thing as ‘female sexuality’ without dancing around on a stage in our underwear or without calling ourselves ‘sluts’ is depressing. And when we go so far as to point out that, in fact, stripping, stilettos, and the word ‘slut’ are things which are used to disempower and objectify women, rather then to celebrate women as human beings that don’t exist to service men, we are told that we are attacking this elusive ‘female sexuality’.

The reason Slutwalks have become so popular is because of the name and the sexy photo ops. It isn’t because anything is changing, it isn’t because Slutwalks are revolutionary, and it isn’t because the media are just so freakin excited about female liberation. Women on stripper poles have always been able to capture the gaze of their audience but never have these images provided women with equality or humanity. And yes, I know that lots of women do this work and that these women are not to blame for our oppression. The men who hold power and privilege and have treated women like pieces of meat for eons are to blame. But replicating and celebrating this imagery challenges nothing. It doesn’t celebrate female sexuality, it celebrates male privilege and male pleasure.

If these marches were actually challenging patriarchy and male power you can bet most of those men would not be standing on the sidelines, smiling and taking photos. They would be angry.

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Is being an abolitionist a ‘red flag’?

Last week Newsweek published an article covering an extensive study on men who buy sex done by Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education. The study revealed that which is known by many feminists, critics of the sex industry, abolitionists and even, I would go so far as to speculate, that which is known by most men (though whether or not they perceive this as problem is a whole other issue). That is, as one man put it, buying sex means: ‘you’re supporting a system of degradation.’

Because the many various forms of buying sex are so normalized in our culture, Farley noted that the researchers had trouble finding men to interview who actually didn’t buy sex. Activities like going to strip clubs and using pornography are simply seen as things that men do, not as activities that exist within a system that has married capitalism and patriarchy in a way that makes women and women’s bodies and sexualities products that are marketed, bought and sold.

Critiques of this study and the Newsweek article were indignant. How DARE we insult the male porn users of the world! Don’t you think their feelings will be hurt? Don’t you think they will be angered to be grouped in with other men who share their view of women as sexualized objects? What about their penises?! How will THEY feel? I can’t imagine that it is very comfortable to be confronted by the reality that your pleasure may not be as ethical as you would like to believe. I can imagine that, after having spent years telling yourself that degradation is hot and it is your right to access said degradation whenever the urge strikes you, it would indeed feel like an affront to your image of yourself as a ‘normal’ and decent man whose penis deserves respectdammit! if someone were to tell you that you too, like those poor, sad, lonely johns, were purchasing women’s bodies and, in that sense, you were buying sex from women.

In a piece written by Tracy Clark-Flory for Salon, she makes note of this, sure to point out the ways in which men are likely to be offended by such an insinuation, pointing us to a tweet from sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel, who wrote: “Dear @Newsweek — I wonder what would happen if everyone who’s watched porn, given/gotten a lap dance or erotic massage stopped reading you.” And you know, I think she was right to point this out. I mean, we don’t need to look very far to see why the sex industry is so massive and so normalized. What Clark-Flory made very clear was that, indeed, men hold power in this world and there is little we can do to challenge these industries because their power is vast. What if every man who had ever watched porn stopped reading Newsweek? Well, they’d lose a lot of readers, that’s for sure.

While Clark-Flory’s point was not, I don’t imagine, to point to the ways in which male power really does make the world go ’round and has an incredible impact on what we view as ‘perfectly natural’ in our society, she did. We are all, just has she and Bussel point out, under threat. I mean, if we suddenly told men that they couldn’t buy sex anymore and that women’s bodies were no longer for sale, not in any form, they would probably be pretty choked. They would probably wield their power as best they could. No one gives up privilege easily.

Are we really surprised to hear that “[T]he attitudes and habits of sex buyers reveal them as men who dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation.”? Are we surprised that men who treat women as objects don’t feel empathy for them or view them as human beings? Of course not. That is, after all, how this whole system works.

What is surprising, though, is that so many of these critiques of Farley’s study are aghast that this research would be “conducted by self-declared prostitution “abolitionist”. What! A feminist? Doing critical research on men who commodify women? Well, now I’ve seen everything. Clark-Flory writes about Farley’s abolitionist stance as though she has revealed some dark and hidden secret; pointing out that Newsweek doesn’t mention Farley’s ‘view that prostitution is inherently harmful and should be eradicated’ ‘until more than halfway through the article’.

She, and others, call this a ‘red flag’. A sex worker blog, Tits and Sass, also represents the discovery of this information (which is, in no way a secret, though these writers seem to think they are outing Farley in some way, as though being an abolitionist is something to be ashamed of) as though it has been discovered via some kind of incredible investigative reporting: ‘She’s a self professed “abolitionist”. Dun dun DUNNNN. Is there any particular reason why a feminist, who is critical of prostitution and pornography, who is working to end this form of normalized misogyny, would not do this particular kind of research? Why this research would or should be viewed as invalid because it was someone with a well developed feminist analysis of the sex industry who did the research? Who, exactly, should be doing this research? Who would be viewed as a credible source, a credible researcher? Maaaybe….This guy? For some reason I’m not hearing any great objections to a white man doing research on johns whose sole goal is to ‘prove’ that they are just regular guys, that they are not violent or abusive, just, you know, men who think they have the right to purchase sex from women? I mean, these are all just married, educated men! Which is, of course, exactly the point. It isn’t just freaks and losers who buy sex. It is men with privilege, men with families, men with wives, men with jobs and educations and social lives. Or not. The point is that the vast majority of men think that buying sex is ‘normal’ and that it should be their right.

Clark-Flory unintentionally points to a common assumption that contradicts Atchison’s study, quoting journalist Susanna Breslin who says that in her research she: “…found that most men seek out sex workers for one simple fact: they are lonely. They are looking for companionship, they crave intimacy, they are looking for some kind of a connection, and because they cannot find it any other way, they buy it.”

It would seem as though any research that normalizes the buying of sex is credible. Even if it is contradictory. Are these guys just friendly, normal, married men? Or are they lonely social outcasts? Who cares. The moral of the story is that buying sex is ‘normal’. It is ok. And any research that seeks to prove this point is credible. Feminist research on the other hand, done by a woman who has been involved in feminist activism challenging pornography, who *gasp* ‘enter[ed] stores that sell Penthouse and destroy[ed] copies of the magazine in protest.’ (again, how DARE she! Not the sacred pornography!), who is, according to some, ‘biased’ because she is a feminist, is without credibility. What does this mean for the future of feminist research? If feminism is a bias, who gets to do the studies? Let’s just leave it to those completely unbiased white men, right? Let’s just leave it all up to the, as Charlotte Shane writes, in her post on Tits and Sass, the ‘real academics’ [one can only assume Shane did some serious detective work to figure out who the 'real' vs the 'fake' academics are (hint: they are 'like scientists')]. Essentially, what I’m picking up here is that anyone who doesn’t give men the respect they demand deserve have worked very hard to have earned  (hey, they can’t help it if women are saddled with oppressive vaginas) and challenges dominant ideology and who doesn’t base their research on a patriarchal mode of thinking that tells us men have an uncontrollable, biological urge to objectify women, is without credibility. Anyone who dares to point out the obvious, that is “that sex buyers were more likely to view sex as divorced from personal relationships than nonbuyers, and they enjoyed the absence of emotional involvement with prostitutes, whom they saw as commodities,” that “Prostitution treats women as objects and not … humans,” is ‘biased’ and not to be trusted.

Whether it is pornography or a lap dance or the purchasing of an ‘erotic massage’, the underlying idea is the same. Women are for sale. And anyone who claims otherwise must be silenced. Whether it be under threat that those who publish or cover this kind of research will lose readers or by claiming that having credentials as a feminist activist deems a researcher untrustworthy and ‘not a real academic’, we can’t have this kind of talk.

What’s that feminism? Shhh…The men will hear you…

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