all feminists are horrid sex-hating prudes
February 11, 2004 06:00 PM

Earlier this week, Kerri posed a question or rather a series of questions as we're wont to do on WHB about sex.

So. The intersection of feminism and sex.

Yes, there is a legitimate reason why feminists might be accused of being anti-sex. It may not be the only reason, though. The legitimate reason: there have and continue to be sectors of feminism that oppose any sort of power dynamic in sex, particularly penetration. For most of us, sex is about power on some level or other. It's not necessarily a bad thing. So, yeah, sectors of feminists that toss out words like "phallocentric" every other sentence and try to extricate sex from power sure seem against sex as it is today for most people.

But the other reason is that feminists, as a general rule, oppose aspects of the dominant paradigm of sexy. The beauty myth, for one. And that poses a threat to "sexy" as we accept it culturally. I think that and feminists who oppose pornography, sex work, etc. create this image for non-feminists of a monolithic feminist thought police. It's an absurd notion, but like all absurd notions has some connection to realityland.

I am personally, not particularly against porn. I'm not saying everyone needs to partake of things pornographic or other products of the sex industry, but I do think that we distract ourselves from better approaches to sex and sexuality when we fix on questions of decency and exploitation. Kerri, whom I adore for this, is always telling people to go out and make their own when they don't like something. I think prevailing cultural notions of sex are like this. When we avoid them (i.e. by squeamishness about them), we enforce what's already there, when we could be reshaping them.

So, the primary issue I have with sex as an industry is not about possession or objectification of people as sexual beings/objects. Because I think we like to reduce people to objects, we like to trade and label and commodify them. And ironically, I think the same motive that drives the beauty myth and the ability to sell sex and other things by means of sex also drives prejudice in general and our identity politics - thus, I am a Queer Person, I am an Anti-Porn Feminist, I am a Dog Catcher, or you are, or they are and we aren't - ultimately, we like that which can be simplified and traded upon. It's hard to say whether this is a result of our somewhat problematic culture or is simply built into our culture because that's how humans like things.

I do not think banning or not buying porn/erotica is going to change this. Nor do I think that selling sex is any more or less harmful than say, the current furor over fat and the subsequent alienation of more or less everybody from their bodies.

So, my problem with porn isn't objectification, but the object which is sold. Quite a bit of porn peddles the same narrow idea of beautiful that the average women's magazine sells. I am angry and frustrated that the range of readily available sex product is so narrow. I am also angry that so much sex product is designed for and by men, and that so much of what is marketed for women is so damned apologetic about itself. I'm not a vibrator, I'm a bunny, it says in all its pink gelatinous glory, It's okay to have an orgasm, as long as you're discreet about it. These cute little discreet designs are aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but like all design they say something about what normal is - and what they say about normal is that women are supposed to be discreet and cute and girlish about desire.

That is not alright with me. Maybe the idea is that it will make more women comfortable with sexual desire, though, and I guess that's okay. Maybe getting a pink bunny vibe is just the first step for people who will shortly be demanding porn for the people. Maybe it's part of women's evolution into a people who will not be seen as passive sexual toys to be penetrated.

There are, if you step into a porn shop or look closely at what's available on Cinemax post-prime time, many examples of women being creatures of [sexual, at least] initiative in various types of porn. And certainly women who participate in various aspects of the sex industry have various feelings of power and strength as a result of their work or consumption of others' work. Not all of these empowering things take place in the utopia of independent feminist porn (cause, like everything independent and feminist, it occupies this itty little niche in the culture/industry), and it does seem like the porn has changed a bit over time, incorporating - and sometimes twisting - notions of women that the larger culture has gradually accepted as a result of feminism. Like the sexually aggressive woman thing - it's no longer only the purvey of fetish porn, but of any porn. Of course, it's still a stereotype (like, hot stupid poolboy, for instance), which makes it that much more relatable and saleable.

Back to the sex industry - beauty myth connection, though. There is almost no remotely mainstream porn that does not trade upon the tiny range of size and type that is considered sexy in our culture. I think anyone who is familiar with, say Suicide Girls or That Strange Girl can confirm that independent porn draws heavily on that limited range. Is it progress for a tattooed, pink haired skinny woman with large breasts to be considered sexy? Not so much. The internet is, as the song goes, for porn, though - and I'm glad that there are so many diverse sites out there imparting knowledge and catering to all the weird shit that gets people hot. The very presence of something in the culture normalizes it over time, so maybe sex will get more and more normal.

That said, a lot of discussion of pornography centers on the problem of who is allowed to be sexy, but never on who is allowed to not be sexy. One of the things Kim pointed out somewhere in the discussion is this judgement of women in terms of their willingness to have sex, their perceived value in terms of sexiness being a huge part of their value, period. I do not think porn is more than accidentally related to this - that is, porn doesn't cause or enforce this standard, but is influenced by it - but I do think that conversations around feminism and sex need to recognize that being private about sex, or even asexual, might be perfectly valid choices.

It doesn't matter, for instance, if you have a healthy relationship or not, if your aversion to saleable sex is the result of prudishness on your part or past history or whatever - if you don't want to be exposed to porn, you shouldn't have to be. I don't want to be exposed to diet ads or diet conversations, and I suspect it's much the same feeling to be unexpectedly assaulted with a Slim Fast commercial as a naked breast. It shouldn't be assumed that because I'm dating a guy, at some party or watching television, that I will be okay with these things.

Those of us feminists who consume and enjoy sex products ought not assume that a "good" feminist must also do so. Nor should those who disagree with us assume they have the right to impose their distaste for these things on the rest of us. There is not one feminism, and there is no one "true" feminist take on sex - other than that we should be free to make choices.

In defense of the "pro-sex feminist" as concept and self-assumed title - for every anti-porn feminist who accepts that sex products are a valid choice for others to make, there is another (or at least .5 of another) who calls herself a feminist but believes that every sexual image is inherently oppressive of women and who will declaim this opinion shrilly at every possible opportunity, with the goal of removing all sexual overtones from our culture. And yes, I do mean calls herself, not is. While it's a mistake to generalize about others, there certainly are anti-feminist undertones (i.e. that women are always victimized by porn because we can't defend ourselves against or actively choose it) to some "feminist" anti-porn rhetoric. If you are an anti-porn feminist and I call this other "feminist" an alarmist prude, it is not the anti-porn stance as a whole that I am attacking, but alarmist prudishness masquerading as feminism. The intention of "pro-sex" feminists is to establish a distance between them/ourselves and those who claim feminism without claiming all women's right to sexual choice (in all its variety); while it may be counterproductive to seek that distance over confederacy with other feminists, there is a logic and a history behind that distance.

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For the record, I went out and made porn. Or erotica or both, whatever. It didn't change my mind or my emotions on the subject. I could tell the story of that part of the evolution of my opinion, but I'd make it a limited post so not everyone could see it. :(

these are the thoughts of Kim on February 12, 2004 05:44 PM

I'm curious how that went, cause, you know, I like you. ;) But from a political standpoint, it shouldn't matter whether you tried the porn and hated it or even if you just flat-out hate sex. It should be your decision, no judgement by anyone else.

What I'm saying about avoiding porn not helping the situation is that any sort of mass movement against the sex industry is ineffective. The best option is for those of us who do partake of it to enforce better standards through our own making & buying habits - better living through capitalism, essentially.

these are the thoughts of april on February 13, 2004 11:25 AM

Hi, my name is Kerri and I'm a Dog Catching Feminist :)

I am not sure how I missed the beauty myth element. Thanks for talking about it...makes sense. And it makes me wonder if I come off as a sex-hater because sometimes I'll go around in a tank top with unshaven armpits. That's a really interesting point that I want to put more thought into.

these are the thoughts of Kerri on February 15, 2004 06:18 PM

This is very interesting indeed. I have to say I've always struggled with the notion that you couldn't be a feminist AND enjoy sex (or, god forbid, porn!) Patrick Califia-Rice has written lots of good stuff about the juxtaposition of sex and feminism- one of my favourite quotes is:

"As I understand it, after the wimmin's revolution sex will consist of wimmin holding hands, taking off their shirts and dancing in a circle. Then we will all fall asleep at exactly the same moment. If we didn't all fall asleep, something else might happen- something male-identified, objectifying, pornographic, noisy and undignified. Something like an orgasm"
(P C-R; Public Sex)

I don't have any issues with pornography per se. I DO have issues with the word "pornography" though, because it's an emotive- and indeed HUGELY subjective- word, and one that has no legal definition (at least here in the UK) whatsoever. Thus whilst bare breasts are porn in my granny's eyes, I can't think of anything that I could really describe as "porn".

Not a lot offends me, and what i don't like, I don't watch/ read. I would certainly never deny anyone else their own personal choice to enjoy material that excites and arouses them. My personal standard is to draw the line at behaviour that's "safe, sane and consensual"- but at the same time, I'm aware that many women have sexual fantasies which may blur that boundary. However, like you said above, the whole question of women having the right to express their sexuality freely (no matter how un-PC, dirty, messy, undignified etc etc it may be) is one of the things feminism fought for. Isn't it? Even I get confused sometimes.

I have big problems with the porn industry, but that's because of the global discrimination within an industry that appears to cater almost entirely to the whims of the able-bodied, White, straight, gym-honed male. Anything and anybody that doesn't fit the mold- be they people of colour, fat people, hairy people, people with physical disabilities are not only marginalised but packaged as some kind of "speciality" or "novelty" or worse still, the objects of some kind of niche market fetishisation.

As a dyke, I have nothing but praise for the women out there making porn and erotica for *us*. Lesbianism still appears to haunt male fantasies (and that's fine- it haunts lots of mine, too!) but it's always the homogenised, pumped-up blondes giving it the ol' girl on girl (before, of course, our friend, the well-hung stud, appears to finish off the job and give them a REAL seeing-to). And don't even get me started about the perils of those big red acrylic fake nails...

these are the thoughts of Emma on February 16, 2004 03:06 PM

PS- I meant to add- I believe the trend for animal-shaped vibrators started in Japan, where the sale of representations of penises is outlawed. I find those things really strange- i can't think of anything *worse* than neon beavers or glittery dolphins et al quivering away on my nether regions.

But-- as a woman who chooses not to have penises involved in her sex life, I am glad that there are more non-penis shaped toys available on the market; sometimes all those vinyl veins and retractable thingummies are just a little bit TOO realistic. But rabbits and butterflies (which curiously remind me of Disney's Snow White, the perfect virgin if ever there was one)? No thanks.

these are the thoughts of Emma on February 16, 2004 03:11 PM

I can understand not wanting dick-shaped sex toys (kind of implies that any toy is just a replacement, which certainly isn't how they're used by everyone), but it's a good thing there are other non-cutesy, non-replacement choices - the bright-colored toys with utilitarian shapes, for instance. That, I can dig.

Oh, and leave it to the Japanese market to create a demand for Disneyfied sex toys. ;)

these are the thoughts of april on February 17, 2004 01:38 PM

wow! i'm so glad i found this site. re suicide girls: i just want to say i think that it's even worse than more "traditional" porn because they actually claim to be feminist, as if it isn't the same shit, different day. Please. That is so dangerous to encourage women to take the same old route to acceptance/self esteem (i.e. women offer boobs, women get praise) and call it something new and better and nonsexist. I know girls that want to join as soon as they hit 18 so they can be 'empowered.' hello! you want to be empowered? Go to school! Go to work! create art, take judo, volunteer, make girlfriends (in an arena not based on your mutual internet nudity). Jesus.

these are the thoughts of paulette on July 26, 2004 04:20 PM

I totally agree with Paulette re: Suicide Girls. Wake up women! It's a trap to sell your looks to get by in the world. I'm from Montreal, the land of strip bars every other block, and I can tell you from the acquaintences that I've made with 40-year-old ex-strippers that once you don't get that praise from showing your boobs anymore ('cuz they're sagging and you've got cellulite), you've got some BIG problems. These women have no self-esteem and no future, because they spent their youth selling their bodies and literally don't know how to do anything else. They are left at age 40 trying to make sense of their lives.

And by the way, since when did feminism turn into women saying YES to MEN'S whims? I'll be damned ...


these are the thoughts of AG on February 6, 2005 08:06 PM

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