Posts tagged sexuality

Being and Being Bought: Meghan Murphy interviews Kajsa Ekis Ekman about prostitution law, the debates around sex work, and her new book 

Kajsa Ekis Ekman is Swedish journalist and the author of “Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self,” which was recently translated into French and English. Meghan Murphy spoke with her over the phone from Stockholm.

Meghan Murphy: What led you to write a book about prostitution?

Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Two things: practice and theory. Coming at the subject from two angles is very fruitful and, actually, necessary if you’re going to write about something like prostitution. You have to look at the reality but you also have to have the theory.

When I started writing this book in 2006, the debate about sex work was just kicking off here in Sweden. The law on sexual services was implemented in 1999 and back then the debate was pretty quiet. When the debate began, seemingly out of nowhere, it was immediately huge and heated — suddenly people were saying things like: “This is just a job, this law is moralist, anybody has the right to do whatever they want,” and so on. I saw that feminists and people in leftist movements were catching on to this and changing their opinion, which I found puzzling.

At the same time, I was living in Barcelona and was sharing a flat with a woman who was selling herself on the highway outside the city. So I was seeing everything that was going on first hand. She was staying with a boyfriend who was something like a pimp and who, in the beginning, claimed he was living off bank robberies, though I figured out this wasn’t the case because was never out — he was always at home on the computer or taking her to the highway and back. I soon realized he was living off of her.

I was seeing the reality of this life as well as how others around her were getting into the business of selling sex. Most of them weren’t from Europe — she was Russian and there were some South American women as well. Early on they would claim they were making lots of money but that clearly wasn’t the case. You know, they’d make 10-20 Euros a night, come home, get piss drunk, pass out and then the whole thing would start again the next day.

The reality of the situation didn’t mesh with what was being said in the debate around “sex work” — it was two different worlds. So I started writing about it.

I wrote a couple of articles about prostitution and the response shocked me. I’ve written a number of articles saying, you know: “Smash capitalism now!” and nobody criticized me, but then when I said, like: “You know the laws we have around prostitution? They’re pretty good,” everybody went crazy. I was getting so much hate mail and I thought, “This is weird. You say ‘smash capitalism’ and no one cares – I mean, you’d think that would be radical.” The issue of prostitution seemed to provoke a lot of people. So I decided to focus more on prostitution and began my research, which I did for about four years after that.

M: What was the reaction like?

K: At first I was a bit scared like, “Why me? What do they have against me? I’m a nice person!” And then I realized that the only way to deal with it is to write whatever you believe is the truth. A lot of people reacted by saying I’m a radical feminist. But I’m not — I’m just a feminist. That’s it. I do draw on radical feminist theory, but I’m also using a lot of Marxist literature in my analysis as well — I come at this from a lot of angles

M: Some people believe that if prostitution is legalized it will come out from the underground and somehow be safer for women. What is your perspective on arguments that advocate for legalization as a way to lessen violence against women and to make women in prostitution safer?

K: Well you would have to actually support that assertion with facts and if you look at the reality, at least here in Europe, it hasn’t been the case.

They did a study which evaluated the legalization of prostitution and brothels there, and the study showed that none of these goals had been met. Legalization hadn’t made prostitution safer; it hadn’t provided women with a safe working environment or a steady job and the majority of the women still weren’t paying taxes. What it showed was that, first of all, women stayed in prostitution much longer than they had expected to, and secondly, it had become more difficult for them to leave the industry. If you look at the German experience as well as the Dutch experience you see that it simply wasn’t the case that it had become safer through legalization – in fact it was the opposite.

M: There’s also that idea that prostitution is taboo — which is attached to the idea that sexuality is taboo. Based on that argument, some say that if prostitution was normalized as opposed to “taboo,” it could be sexually liberating. This extends into arguments that say feminists who oppose prostitution are “anti-sex” or prudish or that they are repressing people’s sexualities. What do you think about those arguments?

K: You need to ask: “What is prostitution?” There are two people in this exchange — one of those people wants to have sex and the other doesn’t. That’s the basic criteria. Without this condition you don’t have prostitution. If you have two people that want to have sex with each other – if they’re horny, they’re excited, they’re dying for each other, they’re obviously not going to pay. If you have free sexuality you don’t pay each other.

In prostitution, we’re talking about a kind of “sexuality” where one person doesn’t want to be in a sexual situation and so the other has to bribe her. That’s the basis of prostitution. Now why is it so important we hang on to that? Why is that the height of free sexuality? A situation where one person doesn’t want to be there? And why doesn’t that bother people? Why doesn’t it bother them that one person actually has to be bribed to be in a sexual situation?

M: Especially when it’s coming from feminists who talk about the issue of consent… Some will argue that “it’s consensual – it’s happening between two consenting adults.”

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

K: But what is she consenting to? She’s consenting to the money, not the actual sex. If you say to any prostitute: “You have two options: Either you can take the money and just leave or you can take the money and also stay for the sex,” how many do you think are going to stay for the sex? Not even a die-hard defender of prostitution will claim that most will to stay for the sex. Most of them are going to take the money and leave – which goes to show they don’t actually want the sex – they want the money.

So if you’re so sexually radical or sexually liberal, why don’t you see this situation for what it is? Sex wherein one person doesn’t want sex? How can that not bother you? This is what makes prostitution different from all other types of sexual situations. If you have two people that want it, no one pays and if nobody wants it then obviously there’s no sex at all.

M: I wonder what you think about the idea that prostitution is just a job? For example, the position that says prostitutes simply provide a service like a massage therapist or a hairdresser or a waitress does?

K: Right. So if that’s what we’re talking about then you can just forget the idea that prostitution is about free sexuality — take it away. But if you look at how prostitution is being done, it doesn’t conform to the idea that it’s “just a job.”

I call prostitution a lie. I was interviewing a woman who was in prostitution and she said: “Ok. You can say it’s a job but in that case you know what it would be like? It would be like you jerking off a guy while he’s watching porn. You wouldn’t have to fake it, you wouldn’t have to moan, you wouldn’t have to say anything to him. You would just do it mechanically.” Prostitution is nothing like that. In prostitution, the person who is selling has to pretend that she’s there because she likes it.

The tricky part of prostitution is this: it’s institutionalized a job but at the same time, when she’s paid, she’s going to do her best to pretend that she’s there because she loves it. She’s going to tell him “Oh I’m coming, you’re the best, you’re so sexy, you’re turning me on” and things like that. She’s doing her best to make him forget that he’s paying her.

So sure, make it a job like any other but then we get to just lie there. Let all the women lie there and do nothing and just look at their watches and see how much the men like it. Prostitution is a lie. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s just a job.

In any case, why should we legalize a “job” that has such high rates of abuse, murder, rape, and sexual harassment? Look at the levels of violence and the high mortality rates of people in prostitution – I mean if this were any other job, it would be made illegal from day one. Even in Holland, you see that in the red light district, which is supposedly so safe and so controlled, women are murdered in the actual shop windows all the time. Even legalized prostitution doesn’t confirm to any labour laws or any labour regulations anywhere.

M: In Canada, where I live, feminists and progressives agree that prostituted women should be decriminalized. That is to say that prostituted women don’t deserve to be punished for working in the sex industry and shouldn’t be thrown in jail for doing what they have to do in order to survive. This means that the debate lies in whether or not to decriminalize the pimps and the johns and a lot of people will argue that criminalizing johns further endangers prostituted women or that laws criminalizing pimps will somehow punish family members — for example if a woman is working in prostitution and she lives with her partner or kids, some say that those people will somehow be charged as “pimps.”

K: Are there any statistics? Is that actually a common thing where family members are put in jail for being pimps? They have to show how many actual cases exist wherein family members are jailed on that basis. The problem with this debate is that there are a lot of assumptions and a lot of arguments but no facts. If you want to claim that this law puts family members in jail for being pimps you have to show that. You can’t just state it.

Regarding the idea that criminalizing johns will endanger prostitutes, you have to ask: “Who is committing the violence against prostituted women?” Is it the law? Or is it the clients? And the pimps? Here in Sweden some people make this claim as well. Somehow the law has been made into a physical abuser — the law doesn’t abuse anyone, ok? If there’s anyone who abuses prostituted women it’s the men. And that is the problem. That’s what we need to do something about. There has been no substantial evidence here to show that the situation has become more dangerous after the law. There’s a lot of talk but no substantial evidence to prove that. It’s an assumption. The experience that we have had of the law has been very positive. It’s reduced the number of buyers – one in eight men used to pay for sex and it’s been reduced to one in 13. We now have a very small number of prostitutes in Sweden. Approximately 1500 – 2000 max.

There’s another aspect of the law that nobody talks about and that’s the fact that this law gives some advantage to the prostitutes. Now, women can report a john to the police, but he can’t report her. Say, for example, he treats her badly or there’s something that he won’t agree to or he refuses to pay — she can threaten to report him because what he’s doing is already illegal. He, on the other hand, can’t threaten her with anything because what she’s doing is not illegal. In countries where the prostitute is doing something illegal and he’s not, he has even more power than he already does in what is a very unequal situation to begin with because he can threaten to report her.

M: I’ve noticed that in the U.S. in particular, some of those who might identify as “sex worker rights advocates” will criticize abolitionists for conflating trafficking and prostitution. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that – are prostitution and trafficking connected? Is there a difference between the two?

K: Basically trafficking is the answer to the question of demand and supply and the problem of supply. Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists — if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry voluntarily — there’s always a shortage, to put it that way. The people who do enter the trade are worn out pretty fast and the clients always want “fresh meat” to put it crudely. They want younger women and women who’ve just started. They don’t want the old prostitutes who’ve been in prostitution for fifty years.

On top of that, the high mortality rate and the way it wears on your body makes life in prostitution pretty short. So there’s always demand for more and more people in prostitution. If there were women coming by the millions to the sex industry you wouldn’t need to drag them out of Eastern Europe. I mean, why would you do that? It’s not logical. If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying “Please, let me in to work!” why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world — there’d be no point. Trafficking exists because there simply aren’t enough women who will go into prostitution willingly. If you want a prostitution industry without trafficking it would have to be a very small industry.

You can’t separate prostitution from trafficking. You would have to decrease demand to such an extent that very few men were actually buying sex. Then you could perhaps be certain that women were there “voluntarily.”

M: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Swedish model or the “Nordic model,” as it’s sometimes called, and what that entails.

K: What a lot of people don’t know is that this model is the result of thirty years of work and research. People think it’s just a bunch of feminists and social workers who decided to wage a war against men or something. No — they started doing research back in the 1970s and looking into the reality of prostitution. This was the first time anyone interviewed people in prostitution on a large scale. The focus was shifting from prostitution being a case of deviance and instead were starting to understand this as a huge social tragedy involving gendered social relationships, poverty, the way women are raised, incest, etc.

After this research was done, the question of what to do came. The answer they came up with was to criminalize the client and legislation went into effect in 1999. It’s been 14 years since then and you can no longer even attempt to pay for sexual services. The law has been very successful not only in that demand has decreased but in that the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality. Eighty percent of the Swedish population supports the law, which you don’t hear about very much.

What happened then was that traffickers started finding it difficult to establish in Sweden and moved to Norway. Oslo, the capital of Norway, became flooded with Nigerian mafia and all these Norwegian men started paying for sex, which led Norway to adopt the same law. The traffickers proceeded to move to Denmark, which is why Denmark is currently considering adopting the same law.

M: Do exiting services and other supports for people who want to leave the industry exist? What happens to women who lose their income when they leave prostitution?

K: That’s something I want to stress — if you want to adopt a law like this you can’t just implement it and then do nothing. You have to ensure the law is accompanied by appropriate support services. In Sweden we have something called the prostitution units and they aren’t just exiting programs — they are much more. If you have been in the industry you have access to free therapy, help finding housing and employment, and dealing with things like debt, for example.

What’s different in Sweden is that we have a pretty strong welfare state so unlike in Canada or the U.S. prostitution doesn’t exist as the result of extreme poverty. Prostitution in Sweden tends to exist as a result of early sexual abuse and things like that. Women there tend to need help with self-destructive behaviour rather than escaping poverty.

M: Some argue that criminalization is not a good response or not a viable route towards liberation because the law will never work in favor of marginalized people. This means that some folks who identify as anarchist or socialist might say: “I don’t want to give the police more power than they already have even if it’s over men who buy sex or who are violent.” Do you identify as anarchist? Socialist? What do you think about that argument?

K: I used to be an anarchist – maybe I still am a little bit… But I do believe in the state as an important tool. I mean, the state can be anything – it can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing — and it isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. The state can serve the interests of capital, of the military, or of the people. It depends on the historical circumstances. The state is not in itself limited to one function.”I can understand that anarchist argument as well, but think it’s kind of internalizing pessimism. It’s like saying “things will never change.” And in that case, you know, if nothing will ever change, what do you suggest? How do we abolish prostitution then? Are you and your anarchist crowd going to go demonstrate every day outside of the brothel?

The experience with the Swedish police has been really interesting because in the beginning they didn’t understand the point of the law – they didn’t see buying sex as a crime so the police used to treat the johns like people who were caught for speeding. The majority of men who were buying sex were married, so they would ask that the police send the ticket to their office instead of to their home because if it was sent to their home their wives and kids would see it. The police would say: “Of course we’ll send it to your office, don’t worry buddy.”

An education campaign within the police changed that and made the officers understand that this was about protecting women, not men. If you hear the trafficking unit lectures, you would think they were radical feminists — they’re amazing. The police now troll the streets for sex buyers saying things like: “Did something happen where men can’t control their own dicks? Man, that’s really bad – they need to stop doing this,” and I think that’s really amazing. You have to work with the police force – if you don’t work with them they will have the same attitudes as before, which is that the women are the criminals and the men are just being men.

M: How is prostitution tied to gender equality and how do laws like the one in Sweden impact the status of women as whole?

K: Sex work lobbyists will try to paint prostitution as though it’s not a gender issue but rather just a “buyer” and a “seller.” They’re talking in market terms and I think that’s very interesting. In my book I also study pro-prostitution discourse from 100 years ago and the difference between then and now is that, back then people didn’t talk about selling and buying — it wasn’t a market thing — it was only seen as being about men and women. They thought prostitutes were fallen women and that they weren’t good for anything else, like, if they weren’t in prostitution they’d be criminals. Regarding the men, the idea was that men needed access to prostitutes because otherwise they would be unruly, would rape the “decent women,” and wouldn’t be able to stay in their marriages. In that way, men having this “outlet” was presented as a good thing for the “decent women.” The discourse was very gendered.

A century later, the feminist movement has happened and while people are still defending this institution, the discourse has changed. People don’t want talk about men and women, they want to talk about it in market terms. But it’s still very much a gendered issue — I mean, the buyers are almost 100% men and the sellers, at least here in Sweden, are at least 90% women. It’s just another way of arranging relations between men and women and if we’re talking about sexuality I don’t think we’ll ever have positive or egalitarian sexual relationships between men and women as long as prostitution exists and is prevalent in this society. What prostitution does to men who pay for sex to keep them in a lie. I mean, these men they don’t even know what to do in bed — they don’t know how to satisfy a women and they don’t understand women’s bodies because the women they are having sex with are paid to tell them that they’re the best, that they’re this super lover. So he’s paying her then coming home and doing the same thing to his wife and she’s like, “umm, no…” and he just thinks she’s boring and prudish or that there’s something wrong with her. So he will never learn the truth about how to do things in bed — it just perpetuates a kind of lie.

It also makes women in prostitution conform to a specific idea of what a woman “supposed” to be like in bed. It isn’t about both people in the prostitution contract, it’s about establishing a relationship where sex is about what men want — the man is the buyer so he will get what he wants. It’s not about satisfying her. If you’re a real feminist and if you actually want women to enjoy sex, I don’t understand how you can defend an institution that is all about renouncing any kind of desire that women have and only satisfying his desires.

If prostitution isn’t about lonely, undersexed men, what is it about? (Or, Justin Bieber doesn’t need to pay for sex) 

Justin Bieber was photographed leaving a Brazilian brothel last weekend. He was covered in bedsheets, which leads us to believe that buying sex still isn’t seen as a completely acceptable pass time (though our friends on team “sex work is work” are doing their very best to change that).

                   

It’s not as though the Biebs has a shortage of options in the lady department. In fact, the very next evening, he left the club at 3am with a van load of 30 girls. Whatever. I know you don’t care what Justin Bieber does on weekends. My point is this: Why are we still pretending as though prostitution exists for lonely, socially awkward, undersexed men.

The media is in love with the “sex surrogate” story these days. Last year the idea of sex as a kind of therapeutic service for the disabled was mainstreamed when The Sessions, a film about a man who was paralyzed from the neck down and hired a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity, came out.

We want to pity johns more than we want to shame them. The sad men and their sad penises. But I don’t think Justin Bieber’s penis is very sad… And I don’t think loneliness or disability is a reasonable defense for male power.

The notion that prostitutes exist as an “outlet” for men isn’t new. Over a century ago we believed prostitutes were necessary in order to prevent men from raping (non-prostituted women) and to preserve marriages. Prostitution was seen as a “social service.” Prostitutes were essentially there to take shit from men, so they wouldn’t take it out on the “good women.” You don’t want to be in the position of being an “outlet” for male aggression (something that was seen as natural and is still seen, by many, as innate). Naturalizing male sexuality as uncontrollable or violent isn’t going to help anyone and making a certain, marginalized, class of women responsible for protecting the other, more privileged women is abhorrent. The Romans viewed prostitutes as sexually insatiable deviants, a notion that conveniently erases any abuses those women suffered at the hands of the men who pay to do with them what they will. We cling to all these notions today, repackaging them over and over again in a continual effort to convince the world that this industry is both necessary and deserving of permanence.

The discourse surrounding prostitution has changed in that we’ve tried to sanitize the industry. “A job like any other” makes prostituted women into service providers, no different than a hair dresser or a physiotherapist. What stays the same is the notion that prostitution is necessary because of the poor, sex-deprived men who “need” women as “outlets.” Some women are lucky enough to have other choices besides dick-receptacle. The poor, the abused, the racialized — not so much.

Today, we like to imagine prostitution as a service for the lonesome. We are to pity these men — What, are they supposed to just masturbate? The horror! But examples like that of Mr. Bieber (and the countless other wealthy men and celebrities who pay for sex) show us that prostitution isn’t just about sex. There is no shortage of sex in Justin Bieber’s life — he has access to plenty of vagina, not to worry. Prostitution, it’s clear, is about power. Male power, specifically.

We can recycle as many of these centuries-old defenses as we like. Take your pick:

- Men are naturally violent and rapey and need to ejaculate into or onto women’s bodies in order to remain sane.

- Men are naturally promiscuous and need different vag to keep things spicy. Their wives, after all, have real feelings and personalities which can be annoying and tiresome.

- Prostitutes just loooove sex! You can bet all those johns are really generous in the sack. Really, really skilled in the art of pleasing a woman. They can’t tell the difference between real pleasure and acting, but hey, that’s why they pay. So they can imagine themselves to be the most virile of lovers. It’s no wonder they (supposedly) can’t get laid for free.

We have, after all, been defending men’s right to women’s bodies since the invention of patriarchy. Why stop now?

The Biebs isn’t lonely, desperate, disabled, or socially awkward. So how do you explain his visit to the brothel? I’m going to pass on what I learned about johns from  survivor and author, Rachel Moran here: Men buy sex because they think they can treat prostitutes differently than they can treat their wives, girlfriends, and dates. They buy sex in order to project what Moran called “evil arousal” onto a human being, guilt and consequence-free. They buy sex to experience dominance and to make rape and abuse “consensual” (we’ve convinced ourselves that payment = consent). Indeed, most johns derive sadistic pleasure from that power imbalance, Moran says.

Prostitution isn’t about sexuality. It’s about male power, plain and simple. And if you’re a feminist, a humanitarian, or a person who believes, in any way at all, in equality and human rights, it’s time to stop regurgitating defenses of the industry. They are old — so old — and they are incredibly destructive; even deadly.

The tyranny of consent 

Emily Witt’s recent essay, within which she describes traveling to San Fransisco, where she watches a BDSM porn shoot for a Kink.com series called Public Disgrace, the purpose of which is to show women  “women bound, stripped, and punished in public,” inspired a number of responses.

Despite my, probably obvious, criticisms of both porn and the BDSM genre, the piece is a very good read (by which I mean, it is engaging and complex and thoughtful); although very, very graphic (by which I mean, don’t read it unless you wish to read very detailed descriptions of sadomachochism).

There’s no real way to defend the production of this kind of film, the scene for this particular production being one in which, as described by for The Atlantic, “… a group of San Franciscans crowded into a basement to watch and participate as a diminutive female porn actress (who consented very specifically to all that followed) is bound with rope, gagged, slapped, mildly electrocuted, and sexually penetrated in most every way.”

He adds, accurately, that “the tenor and intensity of the event can’t be conveyed without reading the full rendering.” Granted, the scene sounds rather terrifying and one might ask, on what basis was “consent” given by this young performer. But interviewed after the shoot, the woman expressed genuine pleasure and enthusiasm about the experience. Believably, I might add.

The question that came up for me, and for some others, was this: Regardless of there being “consent” and even pleasure, is the production and distribution of this kind of film ethically defensible? While I have no real interest in exploring the responses that argue this kind of porn is ethically wrong because it’s “uncivilized” or “barbaric” or un-Godly or whatever writers for The American Conservative think about sex that happens outside of marriage and what kind of sex counts as the kind of “civilized” sex God would have, I am interested in the issue of consent and how “consent” is so consistently twisted to mean “ethical.”

In feminism, as well as in other liberal-type circles, we talk about consent a lot. “Anything that happens between consenting adults…” is the mantra. Those who have formed critiques of the sex industry, of course, are well aware of the ways in which this “consent is magic” ethos oversimplifies the concept of consent and removes relevant contexts and larger impacts from the conversation.

Consent is, without a doubt, very important and this drilling of “non-consensual sex isn’t sex” into our brains has changed the way many people engage in sex and communicate with their sexual partners. Consent is also, obviously, still not a given, as demonstrated by the incredibly high rates with which rape occurs as well as by conversations about “grey areas,” so it’s clear we’ve got a long way to go on this one.

Though the consent conversation is imperative, I think we’re doing it wrong.

“You might think we are doing things to the model that are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” said Princess Donna Dolore (the director of the Kink shoot). “She’s signed an agreement.”

She signed an agreement. Meaning, she “consented.” She even enjoyed the scene. I believe she enjoyed the scene. I believe people connect pleasure and pain. I understand how playing with power and subordination and domination and fantasy turns people on. I’ve experienced this. So many of us have and do. I know.

When it comes to the ethics of shooting a video that explicitly depicts violence and degradation and the humiliation of women, though, the issue of consent that’s become so black and white in conversations that happen in the self-described “sex-positive” sphere of feminist discourse, is distorts the issue.

Ethically, of course, there has to be consent. But also, consider that ethics aren’t about individuals. Ethics are about the ways in which our actions and behaviours affect and impact those around us. Ethics are about society. To say “she signed an agreement” — meaning “there was consent,” says nothing about society or the ways in which the production of this kind of pornography impacts women and men everywhere and social relations. So, in this case, this one individual is ok. Maybe. Sure. The performers in this particular film enjoyed themselves this time. Great. But a conversation about ethics doesn’t end there.

To be completely honest, which is something I do try to be, Witt’s descriptions of the scene didn’t upset or disgust me. The scene, as described by Witt, was titillating in many ways. I have, after all, been socialized here in this porny, violent world, along with the rest of you. But I’m certain that, to watch the finished video or even perhaps to have watched the scene in real life, would have inspired a different reaction in me. I contemplated, for some time, actually watching the video, just so I could know for sure and, therefore be better able to describe exactly what it was that changes when we watch this kind of imagery. In the end, after talking about it with a friend, I decided against it. I’ve seen enough porn in my life to know how watching women being degraded or abused on screen makes me feel. I don’t particularly want my sexual fantasies to involve electrocution or fisting or being hit with a belt. I’m not convinced I need to watch a woman wearing a sign that reads “worthless cunt” be groped and prodded and hit by strangers in a bar in order to understand the imagery. Maybe I’m wrong.

Rape fantasies exist for a reason and I’m certainly not shaming women who have them or who even play out these kinds of scenarios in the bedroom (but men who play out rape fantasies on women in the bedroom? Yeah, you go right ahead and feel ashamed). Power is sexualized in our culture. It’s why we think Don Draper is hot. Sexual violence is all twisted up in our lives and psyches. We see images of sexualized violence on TV and in movies all the time. Not in porn. Just on regular old crime dramas and in horror films. It’s part of our history. It’s hard to escape history, culture, and socialization.

So while the issue of why many of us are turned on by sadomasochistic fantasies or experiences should certainly be explored (and has been by many), when we talk about profiting off of the production and distribution of imagery depicting sexualized violence, there is much more to the conversation, in terms of ethics, than simply “consent.”

Witt makes this distinction after talking with Rain, a self-described “24–7 lifestyle kinkster” who works for Kink. Speaking about Princess Donna with reverence, Rain describes the burning, blinding pain brought on by getting cum in your eyes, saying:

“Do you realize the dedication that takes?” asked Rain. “That’s how committed she is.”

Witt asks herself: “Committed to what? To getting guys sitting in their studio apartments to jerk off to you for $30 a month? Not an insignificant accomplishment, but enacting a fantasy of violence for personal reasons was one thing; doing so for money was another.”

Consent is messier than we often pretend it is. It isn’t black and white, though I think we’d like to think it is. “Consensual” or “nonconsensual” are the two choices we’re offered when it comes to ethics around sex and sexuality. And those two choices, as well as our efforts to create straightforward guidelines with regard to sexual ethics, are being used against us. If signing a contract is all we need to determine whether or not Kink is producing pornography under ethical circumstances (which, for the record, they are not), then we need to re-think the ways in which we’re having conversations about “consent.”

“Anything that happens between consenting adults…” can only be the mantra of feminists and liberals so long as we don’t mind our work against rape culture and exploitation being usurped by the sex industry, for profit.

Ethics are neither limited to capital or individuals because how we conduct ourselves would never come into question if not for the “society” factor. It stands to reason that, if we aren’t considering the impact on society, as a whole, with regard to our ethical quandaries, we aren’t really talking about ethics at all. We’re either talking about profit or pleasure from a place of self-interest, in which case “consent” becomes something you get, not because it’s necessarily “ethical” or “right” or “good”, but in order to fulfill the interests of a certain faction of individuals, regardless of social context.

“Consent” is a necessary starting point, but is far from the end of the conversation.

In pornography, there’s literally a market for everything: Why ‘feminist porn’ isn’t the answer 

“If there’s something you don’t like about your body, put it into a search engine, put ‘+ porn,’ and you’ll find a whole host of sites that find that’s the most attractive thing about you,” porn producer, Anna Arrowsmith said in an interview with BBC, with reference to a debate she would be participating in, hosted by Intelligence Squared in London.

The debate was centered around the motion: “Pornography is good for us” — indeed, a stupidly simplistic and unanswerable question in and of itself; the debate shone a light on the intellectually void and anti-feminist nature of the delusion that is “feminist” or “queer” pornography.

Arrowsmith begins her argument in a most telling way; describing how, one night, walking through London’s red light district, she realized that, rather than feeling angry, she was “envious” that men’s sexuality was being catered to “in so many different ways.” This feeling is likely familiar to many of us and is also an entry point into pro-porn/prostitution feminism for many women. After all, it’s not particularly unreasonable that a woman might feel “envious” of men’s position in this world. It makes perfect sense to feel as though we’ve gotten the shaft (pun!), as women, as far as cultural and social prioritization of female sexuality goes. But is the answer to take what men have in the sex industry, break off a corner piece, and try to mold it into something marginally less male-centric? Is the answer to exploitation to provide “equal” opportunity exploitation? Is our goal, as feminists, to be more like men and to merely adapt to a male-dominated world as best we can? Are we so unwilling to imagine something different than simply “more porn!”?

“I knew then that it was far more productive and feminist to invest my time in creating something that allowed women to explore their sexuality than it was to thwart men’s freedoms,” Arrowsmith said.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And while you’re at it, be sure to let the men know you’re on their side. They need change nothing — you’re jumping on board with them. Arrowsmith wants to be seen as one of the “good” feminists. Non-threatening. Fun. Sexxxxxy. Alas, the logic and ideology behind her arguments is not only confused, it’s anti-feminist.

Not only does Arrowsmith want to reassure men they are doing nothing wrong, that she’s on their side, that all she wants is a piece of the pie — but she goes so far as to blame feminism (in particular, Andrea Dworkin) for victimizing women: “Such theorists see women as inevitable victims which, in turn, encourages women to see themselves as victims. It is this anti-porn feminism that gave men the power to taunt women with porn…”

It’s all in your head, Arrowsmith’s self-help style, faux-empowerment discourse goes — Just change your frame of mind, and you can change the world. Yet no amount of positive affirmations or standing in front of mirrors, telling ourselves we are not victims and that we are empowered, will stop men from raping and abusing and objectifying us. Feeling good is great. I highly recommend it. But a political movement to end oppression and inequality, it is not.

Feminism hasn’t victimized women. Neither does the word “victim,” victimize women. Perpetrators of violence victimize women. Blaming women for their own oppression is the lowest of the low. Naming the perpetrator is rule number one in this movement.

Still think Anna Arrowsmith is on our side? Still think “feminist pornography” has anything to do with feminism?

Arrowsmith imagines herself to be making a case for female empowerment via the sex industry. That is, if the fetishization and sexualization of everything and everyone is the be all end all of liberation.

She believes that the problem with objectification (which she understands, in her muted and apolitical way, to mean: “seeing someone for their sexual attractiveness alone”) is simply that it isn’t “socially acceptable” for women to objectify men (though they are capable of doing so “just as easily”).

You see, Arrowsmith has limited her vision of female sexuality (and is working very hard to convince us to limit ours as well) to what she sees in a male-dominated world — understandably — this is all we know. If only we could have what they have, that whole injustice thing would fade away. If women, too, were able to objectify men as men objectify women, objectification would cease to play a starring role in the global epidemic that is violence against women.

Just imagine! If a woman had objectified Joe Francis, he never would have made a lucrative career off the backs of young, inebriated women he convinced to “go wild” — Certainly if women could produce similar films, the objectification and exploitation that support his hatred of women would vanish. Certainly Francis’ view of women as objects that exist solely for his financial gain and/or male pleasure had nothing to do with his recent conviction on assault charges. Nope. The fact that if you don’t comply to Francis’ wishes, and you happen to be a woman, he may or may not smash your head into a tile floor, has nothing at all to do with his soft-core porn empire (which he, like all pornographers, presents as “free speech”). He has a long history of exploiting and abusing women and girls. If you should ever need a clear picture of the connections between prostitution, pornography, and violence against women, look no further than Joe Francis. Or Larry Flynt. Or Belgian porn king, Dennis Black Magic. Turning living beings into objects erases their humanity. It’s far easier to abuse an object. Men who don’t respect women, don’t respect women.

Would “queer porn” have changed how Joe Francis saw and treated women? If it were “socially acceptable” for women to objectify men, would Girls Gone Wild have ceased to be an exploitative, woman-hating, dick-fest? If more women with tattoos and real breasts were made into porn, would the billion-dollar porn industry lose a cent? Would it change it’s misogynistic ways? Would those porn producers suddenly start respecting women? What’s the logic behind this?

Cover your eyes and plug your ears, ladies. Objectification is for everyone. This could be your liberation.

Arrowsmith’s arguments outline many of the problems with discourse around so-called “feminist pornography” — One of those arguments being that diversity will address and erase the misogyny that is integral to the industry. So, the argument goes: if we simply include diverse bodies in our porn, it will cease to be sexist. But, if the problem with pornography lies in narrow definitions of beauty, then we’re making the argument that it’s impossible to objectify women who aren’t thin or who don’t have surgically enhanced bodies. Or that somehow it’s more ethical to objectify “alternative” or “diverse” bodies.

This is, of course, not true. Objectification doesn’t only work on hairless, orange ladies whose bodies have been trimmed and buffed and stuffed full of silicone. Oh no. Men are fully capable of objectifying all kinds of women. Rape happens to fat women and disabled women and older women and racialized women, too, Anna. Is the ability to watch “an amputee,” as Arrowsmith suggests, in porn, progressive? Would we feel better if we watched a woman over 40 be gang raped? Would fetishizing cellulite end male violence? Please.

Another key problem, according to “feminist porn” pushers, is that porn is simply misrepresented. Arrowsmith says, for example, that the oh-so-diverse ways in which porn objectifies all kinds of women isn’t represented in the “mainstream press.” But the problems with porn goes far beyond “representation.”

Germaine Greer, who was placed on the other end of this debate, points out that “porn is not a style, and it’s not a literary genre… It’s an industry.” In other words, this isn’t merely an issue of representation. Nor is it an issue of diversity. Today, pornography is just as much about capitalism as it is patriarchy. It’s about the commodification of bodies and of sexuality for the purposes of profit. Under an inherently exploitative system, such as capitalism, I find the idea that porn is about anything liberating or has anything at all to do with democracy (as Arrowsmith calls it: “the democratization of the body”) deeply ignorant. Capitalism’s whole deal is profits before people, so the notion that one who aligns themselves with a movement towards social equality, such as feminism, would advocate for an industry that exists at the expense of women’s lives, is illogical.

Arrowsmith presents the industry as one that caters to women’s needs and lives, saying: “The porn industry is organized around the women who perform in the films as they decide their limits and are hired on that basis.” Ok sure. If you think that having a three year career (which is the average amount of time women last in the porn industry) in which women are pressured to perform more and more extreme acts and, once they do perform those acts, can’t return to the more “vanilla” acts they were doing before constitutes a female-led industry. The ones who get longevity, financially and career-wise, are the men who run the industry. Women get a few thousand dollars, maybe three years, and a lifetime of humiliation as those images follow them around for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps worst of all, Arrowsmith believes that pornography is a useful stand-in for actual sex education: “It’s where most men learn about where the clitoris, A-spot, and G-spot are.” But the fact that porn is actually seen as a kind of sex education and is actually where most boys and men are learning about sex these days is not something to be celebrated. Not only does porn provide a warped understanding of what women enjoy, sexually (being dominated, facials, gang bangs, double-penetration, everything men enjoy sexually, etc.) but it doesn’t teach consent. Instead it provides viewers with the impression that women are always up for anything and, furthermore, that rape is something that turns us on, even if we think we don’t want it.

By far, the most common female character in porn is “teen.” I tend to think that sexualizing teenage girls isn’t best sex education for men. Is this the “diversity” you’re talking about, Anna? Is this the sex education we want for men? Anna Arrowsmith should probably google “teen porn” and then get back to us about this great, pro-woman sex education porn is providing for men.

Ironically, Arrowsmith runs a “campaign website” called WeConsent.org. The site purports to “campaign against moral panics and anti-erotic industry legislation.” Everything from the name to the supposed aim of the site should be raising red flags. The intentionally meaningless language intends to manipulate the public into believing that 1) the porn industry is interested in “consent,” and 2) opposition to the porn industry stems from puritanism and some kind of illusory “anti-sex” position.

I say “ironically” with reference to the name of the site because, in fact, the entire basis for the sex industry is lack of consent. And no, before sex work advocates start manipulating my words to mean that I think sex workers or porn performers can’t be raped, because every sex act that is paid for constitutes rape, that isn’t exactly the argument I’m making. Consensual sex happens when both parties desire sex. If one partner does not want to have sex, and sex happens anyway, that constitutes rape (i.e. nonconsensual sex). In porn, those involved are being paid to perform sex acts. They are paid because the sex acts they are engaging in are not desired. Once you are paying someone to have sex with you, it no longer counts as consensual, enthusiastic, desired sex. Yes, you agreed to perform whatever sexual acts — but you did so because you were being paid. Not because you really, really, really wanted to fake an orgasm while that very special man fucks you in the ass.

“Whatever happens between consenting adults…” is another manipulation put forth by the sex industry advocates. But is this the kind of consent we’re looking for, as feminists? To be paid to perform sex acts and fake enjoyment? Really? It doesn’t sound liberating to me. That doesn’t sound like “free sexuality” to me.

Even more odd is how the pro-porn “feminists” have also positioned themselves as “sex-positive,” implying that there exists a faction of feminists who are “sex-negative.” I’m perpetually amused to have been placed in some imagined “anti-sex” camp due to my criticisms of the sex industry, though it becomes less and less laughable as more and more people seem to be buying into the notion that “pro-porn” equals “pro-sex.” After all, what’s so “sex-positive” about commodified, coerced sex? What’s so “sex-positive” about promoting an industry that encourages an understanding of sex and sexuality that is not only male-centered, but prioritizes profit over the well-being, pleasure, and respect of women?

Greer’s comments, in fact, were the only “sex-positive” thing I heard in the entire debate, who said (and I completely agree): “I’m in favour of erotic art. I’m desperate to find a way to reincorporate sexuality in the narrative that we give of our lives.” That I feel nothing less than elated in the rare moments I’ve seen women’s bodies and sexualities represented onscreen in ways that don’t objectify and degrade shows me how desperate I am for this as well. We’re so accustomed to pornographic representations of sex and sexuality that we can’t even imagine an alternative. We’ve been told that porn equals sex and that, therefore, to be critical of porn is to be critical of sexual expression. That argument is then extended into one that says that, by either criticizing, limiting, or “censoring” pornography, we are repressing people’s sexualities and sexual freedom. But, as Greer points out: “Pornography doesn’t make us less repressed — pornography is a way of making money off of the fact that we are repressed.”

The solution to the massive and insidious impacts of porn on our lives and views of women, men, and sexuality is not “more porn”. Neither will “diversity” resolve the misogynistic and exploitative nature of the porn industry. The fact that Arrowsmith believes that objectifying “an amputee” or women who don’t look like Playboy models is liberating shows a depressing lack of understanding with regard to how the industry functions and the ways that objectification impacts the status of and real lives of women everywhere. The fact that she believes that women will feel better about their perceived flaws because they can find porn that fetishizes said flaws is, frankly, stupid. “Ooooh look! That man just came all over that lady’s tummy rolls! Body-hatred = resolved.”

“Whatever gives you pleasure, gives you power” can only be your mantra so long as power (rather than social equality) is your modus operandi. When Arrowsmith tells us that “whatever interests you, sexually, is what you should practice,” what she’s condoning and advocating for is not women or female sexual liberation, but a model that says that individual desire, whatever that desire may be, takes precedence over justice, equality, and human rights. Beyond that, pornography limits possibilities for, and our ability to explore real sexual pleasure outside the confines set up by the linear narrative of porn which prioritizes male ejaculation over all else and teaches women to focus on their performance (and faked orgasms) rather than their pleasure.

Arrowsmith says pornography is like “a game or a sport,” and she’s right, in a way… The “game” is one of narcissistic conquest wherein, as Anita Sarkeesian reminded us recently, with respect to “the game of patriarchy,” rather than being the opposing team, women are the ball.

Arrowsmith’s “queer, feminist porn” is nothing more than a desire to jump into the court and grab a racket in the vain hope she won’t get hit.

On ‘gray rape’, Girls, and sex in a rape culture 

About five years ago, I was out and about with some dude-friends. We went to a bunch of bars, danced, drank, etc. I was single and also, therefore, mingling. Flirting, they call it. Eventually when there was no more bar-hopping to be had, we went back to a friend’s house and laughed and talked and made jokes and took stupid photos. One of the men I’d been flirting with, let’s call him Brad*, gave me a ride home. We got to my house, made out, and I said something along the lines of “Alrighty then, see you later!” He said “No, I’m coming in.” I said “No, you’re not.” This charming back and forth went on for a little while until, eventually, he did come in.

So there was no force, no screaming, no violence. I didn’t feel afraid, per se. I “gave in”, I suppose you could call it. I imagine he thought he was being charming. This is likely a game he had played (and won at) dozens of times over. I, on the other hand, felt repulsed. I’d had sex with someone that, while yes, I was attracted to, was flirting with, and even kissed, did not plan on or want to have sex with. It wasn’t part of the plan. It become “part of the plan” because this man didn’t take my “No thanks!” seriously (and was clearly unconcerned with what I wanted) and because I eventually gave in. I didn’t know what to call it when I told friends about it. I think I went with “date rapey behaviour”.

Amanda Hess wrote about the most recent episode of Girls for Slate. In the article, entitled: “Was That a Rape Scene in Girls?” she describes how the Adam-Natalia sex scene wasn’t one that you might call the cops over; but it also wasn’t consensual in any true or ethical sense of the word. It wasn’t acceptable sexual behaviour by any means. But was it rape?

Hess writes:

What happened here? On the one hand, Adam has fulfilled Natalia’s initial requests—he is on top, comes outside of her, no soft touching. On the other hand, he is no longer being “really nice” or taking things “kind of slow.” This time, no one is laughing. What was abundantly “clear” the first time is now muddied. The first time, Natalia communicates with Adam to do just what she wants; the second time, Adam wields her words against her to do what he knows she really doesn’t. So when Natalia says, “No, I didn’t take a shower,” Adam says, “Relax, it’s fine.” When she says, “No, not on my dress,” he comes on her chest instead. “Everything is OK,” except when it’s not.

She goes on:

There is rape—a crime reported to the authorities, investigated by the police, and prosecuted in the courts. And then there is everything else that is not consensual, but not easily prosecutable, either: “gray rape,” “bad sex,” “they were both drunk,” the “feeling” of being “borderline assaulted.” It’s what happens when a person you want to have sex with “has sex with you” in a way that you do not want them to.

It’s muddy, yes. But we all know (or should know), that it isn’t ok. It’s what happens to women. It’s a run of the mill experience for many of us in this culture. It’s not something easily categorized as either “rape” or “consensual”. As many of us know all too well, there’s much more middle ground. And that “middle ground” is often disturbingly comparable to legal rape; but sometimes more difficult to talk about or sort out in one’s mind.

What happened between Adam and Natalia has happened to me before in one form or another. Once, when I was about 19 or 20, with a boyfriend who was angry and blacked out from drinking. I didn’t want to have sex, he did. We didn’t have sex. Instead, he masturbated over me.

Was it rape? Not technically, no. Was I going to call the cops and have him charged? No. Was it acceptable behaviour by any means? No. Was it a show of power? Yes. Did it make me feel sick and dirty and violated? Yes. Was it ‘consensual’? Hell no.

While “’no means no,’” Hess writes, “it is not the only measure of consent.”

After the incident with Brad — the “No, you’re not coming in”/”Yes, I am coming in” incident — I didn’t know quite what to call it. I told a couple of friends, one of them being one of the dude-friends I was out with that night, a friend of mine and of Brad’s. I said that, well, I suppose you would call it a kind of date rape. But no, it wasn’t “call the cops” date rape. It was, “Ok. I guess you’re coming in.” And “Ok, I guess we’re having sex that I didn’t really want to have.” My friend agreed that this was “date rapey behaviour.”

What happened was perhaps unclear in a legal context, but the way I felt about the situation was far from unclear. It wasn’t ok. Those I told about my experience knew it wasn’t ok.

On International Women’s Day, Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, allegedly told transit advocate and publisher of the Women’s Post, Sarah Thomson that she “should have been with him because his wife wasn’t there.” And then, she says, he grabbed her ass.

Classy guy that Ford his, when Thomson went public about the alleged sexual harassment, he not only accused her of peddling “false allegations,” but he used feminism against her, saying: “What is more surprising is that a woman who has aspired to be a civic leader would cry wolf on a day where we should be celebrating women across the globe.”

A woman called a man out on sexual harassment and he actually had the nerve to use the woman’s movement against her.

I have a point. I’m getting to it.

Life happens in funny ways sometimes and five years later I was (briefly) dating a relative of Brad-the-sleazebag. Let’s call him Dave*. Needless to say, I didn’t tell Dave what had happened. I assumed it would come up at some point, but not on the first, or second, or third date. It became clear, eventually, that he what he knew was that we’d slept together about five years ago and that I had hated Brad ever since.

That relationship didn’t work out and, by coincidence, our mutual friend mentioned the whole “date rape” thing to Brad. He lost his shit and demanded I clear his name, to which I replied: “I don’t think I should have to say ‘no’ more than once. I’m not sure what you believe constitutes date rape, but if you want to avoid being accused of such things in the future, my recommendation would be to respect and hear ‘no’ the first time a woman says it.” He didn’t take that very well. He was enraged, in fact.

In some less-than-friendly parting emails between Dave and I, it became clear that, while I hadn’t told him exactly what had happened, Brad had told him about the “date rapey” descriptor. Via email, Dave accused me of somehow twisting the scenario around in my crazy, crazy head, in the process, “doing something” terribly cruel and unwarranted to poor, innocent Brad. Not only that, but, by describing my experience as one that was not consensual in any way I’d like to understand the word consensual (Let’s talk enthusiastic consent, hey? Not, I-wore-her-down-until-she-eventually-gave-in, consent) I was a bad feminist. Because, I suppose, what good feminists would do would be to pretend as though talking women into having sex with you even though they’ve said a number of times that they’d prefer not, is totally fine. His email was eerily Rob Ford-esque, saying: “given your role as a defender of women’s rights I find the hypocrisy staggering.”

Oh the hypocrisy.

Rather than simply take responsibility for his behaviour and admit that his behaviour was unacceptable, Brad’s primary concern was to defend his sleazebaggery and paint me as an evil liar, out to get him at any cost! He didn’t want to connect what he understood to be rape with his own behaviour and when men don’t want to understand or be accountable for their own behaviour, they accuse women of lying, of being crazy, or, apparently, of setting women’s rights back with their devious and delusional stories.

See, these men think they’re the “good guys”. The bad guys are in movies, climbing through windows or attacking women in parking lots. And those guys do exist, without a doubt, but if men are unwilling to acknowledge their own behaviour as part of a rape culture, women are going to continue to experience these traumatic “gray” areas and not feel able to call it out. If men are more interested in protecting their ingrained beliefs that they are right and good and entitled to behave in these ways, than treating women as more than sexual conquests, they aren’t likely to change.

The comment from Dave was so odd (and hurtful, as it always is when people victim-blame), partly because, as a feminist, what I’d always felt most guilty about was, first of all, that I hadn’t been “strong enough” to stop the sex I didn’t really want to happen from happening, and secondly, that when I described the experience to a few friends, I couldn’t be completely clear. “Date rapey,” I called it. “Not the kind of thing you press charges over but, you know, I said no, he said yes. And then we had sex anyway. I felt gross about the whole thing.” Shouldn’t I be able to name this incident in some kind of firm way? I felt I should know better on a number of levels. And here I was being accused of failing feminism for entirely opposite reasons.

I suppose you could call these “gray rapes”, as some people did with regard to the scene in Girls where Adam tells Natalia to crawl to the bedroom and then says to her: ““I want to fuck you from behind, hit the walls with you,” to which she does not say “no”, but is clearly not enthusiastically on board. He does fuck her from behind and then pulls out and masturbates over her. She says: “No, no, no, no, not on my dress!” Her face conveys how disturbed and unhappy she is with Adam’s behaviour. The lack of consent isn’t really confusing. He comes on her chest. “I don’t think I like that,” Natalia says. “I, like, really didn’t like that.”

Is she going to call the cops? No. Will she press charges? No. Will she even say that what happened was date rape? Probably not. Was she violated? Most definitely.

Hess writes:

… though terms like “gray rape” help some people talk about assault outside of the context of the legal system, they shouldn’t be used to excuse the aggressor—they should help raise the standard of what we all consider acceptable sexual behavior, whether or not the cops are called.

It’s scenarios like these that leave us without words to describe our experiences. They also leave us open to accusations of “crying wolf” or making “false accusations”.

But we know what our experiences are. We know when there is not consent and yet we can’t call it rape in a legal sense. These experiences leave us vulnerable to being silenced, blamed, and disbelieved. They leave us feeling unsure of ourselves. We ask ourselves what happened — Was it rape? Was it “borderline assault”? Was it just a bad experience that most women probably have? Should we have said “no” more clearly? Loudly? Firmly?

Certainly it’s something more than just a “bad experience” or “bad sex”. And yes, it’s muddy, but only because we live in a rape culture, where the line between consensual, nonconsensual, and legal rape are horribly blurred.

*Names have been changed

No, being ‘kinky’ does not grant you minority status 

You’ve likely heard about the ‘cannibal cop‘ by now. He was a New York police officer whose wife discovered a website open on his computer displaying a photograph of a dead girl. The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.“  There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”

The wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, said that when she later delved into her husband’s electronic chat history, she found he had been communicating with others about plans to torture and kill women, including herself.

“I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit, and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me,” she said, sobbing repeatedly through her afternoon on the witness stand.

He has now been charged with “plotting on the Internet to kidnap, rape, kill and cannibalize female victims.”

The Times article asks an interesting question, similar to one I asked back when photos were discovered of an RCMP officer who had been involved in the Pickton investigation that simulated violence against women: “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?”

Valle didn’t actually go through with his plans. While the prosecutor argued that the officer was plotting real crimes, Valle’s lawyer claimed it was all just a fantasy. The ‘fantasy’ argument didn’t provide much comfort to Mangan-Valle, who also found conversations about elaborate plots to have friends “raped in front of each other” or burned alive or about “putting women on a spit, and cooking them for 30-minute shifts, so they could be tortured longer.”

These were pretty specific plans for something that was just an innocent fantasy. There is documented negotiation of specific details and a payment upon delivery to a co-conspirator: “Valle insisted upon a price no less than $5,000 and assured CC-2 that Victim-2 would be bound, gagged, and alive when he delivered her.”

There is no doubt that violence against women is sexualized in our culture. But when Ginia Bellefonte published a piece called “Remember Misogyny” in the Times wondering why there was so little concern from feminists about this fetishization of violence against women, Jessica Wakeman responded, in The Frisky, with derision:

“Focusing on the craziness of a couple of mentally ill folks instead of larger systemic injustices seems like a poor use of time,” she argues. “Maybe….cannibals eating women isn’t really feminism’s most pressing problem?” Why so defensive? Visiting fetish sites that feature women being tortured, sometimes to the point of death, seems fairly misogynist to me.

Bellefonte quotes Jane Manning, a former sex-crimes prosecutor and currently the legislative vice president for the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, who notes:

“There’s an odd confusion in the feminist movement,” she added. “We’ve all accepted the idea that speech is protected when it’s speech. But that seems to have extended to the notion that there shouldn’t even be social condemnation attached to incredibly horrifying misogynist speech.”

Violence against women continues to be one of the most urgent and pressing issues for the feminist movement today. And I would say that sites that fetishize mudering, raping, and eating women are, in fact, a little more serious than simply “a couple of mentally ill folks” who like to surf the internet and whatever everybody just relaaaax OK? So, a man who fantasizes about hanging his wife from her feet while him and his friends “take turns sexually assaulting her before slitting her throat and cooking her” isn’t misogyny? OK. Got it.

We’re at a place in feminism where we are so desperate to either not be perceived as ‘prudish’ or to defend any and every activity as simply an individual ‘choice’ or behaviour that calling what is clearly misogyny (is there any more literal manifestation of the sexualization of violence against women than fetish sites dedicated to torturing and murdering women?) has become off-limits because it counts as ‘kink’. The desperation to individualize, legitimize, and depoliticize absolutely everything is frightening. Particularly because it seems we are most intent on doing this with relation to anything that could possibly be connected to sexuality.

I get the feeling that we’re not calling this kind of thing out because we don’t want to admit that, sometimes, misogynist ‘fetishes’ aren’t simply ‘fantasy’. They’re actually misogyny.

Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.

That said, there are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life.

William Saletan pointed out, in an article for Slate, that :

Every article about BDSM now includes the obligatory professional woman who’s secure enough in her feminism to admit she likes to be flogged. It’s great that we’ve come that far, but the message is awkward. While reformers in India battle a culture of rape, Indian BDSM advocates extol the bliss of female masochism. While human rights activists denounce caning and waterboarding, BDSM lecturers teach the joys of caning and waterboarding. Abduction, slavery, humiliation, torture—everything we condemn outside the world of kink is celebrated within it.

Awkward, indeed. The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.

The tricky part follows: “Political advocates for BDSM see themselves as successors to the gay rights movement. They cite Lawrence v. Texas. They call themselves “sexual minorities” and depict kink as a “sexual orientation,” Saletan writes. Get it? If being ‘kinky’ makes you part of some kind of minority group, anything that counts as fetish is off-limits in terms of critical discussion. It can’t be misogynist, I was born this way! It’s sex, not misogyny!

I mostly agree with Saletan’s assessment: “BDSM isn’t an orientation. It’s a lifestyle.” And, for the most part, whether or not you like to play out fantasies or wear leather or do fancy things with ropes or dress up as a sexy nun in order to rebel against your Catholic parents as part of your sex life isn’t something anyone else has a say over. But that really isn’t the point. There is misogyny and violence and abuse that happens as part of BDSM and we should be able to call it for what it is without being accused of attacking a person’s ‘sexual identity’.

The ludicrous notion that this lifestyle should qualify a person for protection under the law,on account of being a part of some kind of oppressed minority group defined by ‘kinkiness’ is an insult to actual minority groups.

This kind of hyperbolized, perverted use of identity politics as a means to stifle feminist discourse and critical thought is a serious detriment to the movement.

We are always asking ourselves “What happened to the momentum?” and “Where are all the young feminists?” Well, I think we’re finding the answer. In the final segment of the recently aired documentary, MAKERS: How Women Made America, a three-hour look at the history and evolution of the women’s movement in the United States, Letty Pogrebin said, of the “Why don’t young women care about feminism?” question: “If they lose their rights, then they will wake up.” And I don’t think she was talking about the right to be spanked.

I supposed once we’ve completely quelled our ability to discuss anything outside individual choice and identity and are forced to discuss all actions and behaviours as neutral and void of context, we’ll truly be free.

It’s not ‘slut-shaming’, it’s woman hating 

We, in feminist land, like very much to encourage folks (particularly media-type folks, as they have a pretty significant role in framing discourse) to use correct language. Or, at very least, language that describes something real. In my last post, for example, I talked about the fact that many mainstream news sources reported on the murder of Kasandra Perkins without ever using the words ‘violence against women’ or even ‘domestic abuse’. Feminists know that naming the act and the perpetrator is important lest systemic inequity and the fact that we live in a sexist society disappear into the ether. It’s hard to address misogyny if we refuse to acknowledge that it exists and shapes our lives. Language matters.

As such, I would like to address a newfangled term that has mushroomed in popularity like an idiot weed due to funny fun-times Slutwalk and other ‘WE DO WHAT WE WANT FUCK YEAH‘ feminismish happenings.  That term is ‘slut-shaming’.

I implore you, friends of feminism, language and logic — Stop saying ‘slut-shaming’. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s misleading. And makes you all sound ridiculous.

Now, before you start explaining to me why slut-shaming is actually a real thing, allow me to stop you. I understand what it is you are trying to get at. I myself have experienced this ‘shaming’ many a time. I know all too well about the double-standard that won’t die. The one that makes promiscuous women ‘sluts’ and promiscuous men into ‘pimps’. (Get it, boys? Being a ‘pimp’ is a good thing.) And you don’t even have to be ‘promiscuous’, whatever that means. It’s a thin line, for women, between love and hate. One minute you’re revered, you’re beautiful and precious and desirable andandand…. the next, you’re in the gutter. Women lose their sheen quickly. That’s what happens with commodities. You’re worth is in the hands of a fickle and punitive market.

Like you, I am sick as fuck of being treated like shit while men brag and boast about their ‘conquests’, shaming the very women who trusted them for doing just that: trusting. Silly girl. Trust is for amateurs. You’ll get your comeuppance.

Yes. I agree that this is bullshit.

Being called a slut is painful. It sticks with you. I know.

Even now, as a bone fide adult, when I should really not have to deal with this crap, I still do. I still feel there’s an expectation that I play the chaste game. That, while men can pretty much act on any impulse, I will be judged for my behaviour. Masquerading as a classy lady is work. I do my best, but the end I usually just do what I want. What other people want obviously has less bearing on my choices than what I want. If that weren’t the case I’d likely have some kind of stable job, a better credit rating and a practical degree. Regardless of my stubborn hedonism, somewhere in the back of my mind there is always a tiny voice yelling “SLUT!” Residual trauma I’m guessing.

So please, spare me the lecture on the sexual double standard. I’ve lived it and been punished by it for half my life. By men and women alike.

Yet stillI cringe every time I hear someone talking about ‘slut-shaming’. As such, I’ve compiled a list of  reasons that describe why I feel this term is stupid and should go away forever:

1) There’s no such thing as a slut. Can we please stop pretending there is? ‘Slut’ is a word used to shame and silence and attack women. It is only a real thing to misogynists who use language to hurt women.

2) The solution to the sexual double standard that shames women for having casual sex, being promiscuous, enjoying sex, having female bodies, leaving the house, whatever,  is not, as a very smart lady on Twitter put it recently, to “turn ‘sluts’ into a special-interest group“. You see, there is no such thing as a ‘slut’ or a ‘non-slut’. There are women. This whole ‘slut-pride’ thing and terms like ‘slut-shaming’ reinforce the very dichotomies feminism works to destroy. Us vs. them. Good girls vs. bad girls. Reinforcing the idea that some women are ‘sluts’ and that ‘sluttishness’ is attached to female sexuality (i.e. that whole — now ‘slut’ means a ‘woman who likes sex‘ crap) is not useful in terms of defining our own lives and sexualities. Like sex, don’t like sex, whatever. You aren’t a ‘slut’ either way. You’re a woman.

3) ERGO. ‘Slut-shaming’ isn’t about shaming ‘sluts’. It’s about misogyny. It’s about shutting women down. It’s about hating women. It’s about silencing. You can be labelled a ‘slut’ regardless of whether or not you have or like sex. Whether you’ve had one partner or fifty. It’s doesn’t matter. Just like women get called bitches regardless of their behaviour. Do we go around telling people not to ‘bitch-shame’ us? No, we say that men who call women bitches are sexist assholes who don’t like it when women speak (read: exist).

4) No matter how hard you try to take back ‘slut’, people will still use it to shit on  you. And it still won’t feel good. Just because you’ve painted ‘slut’ across your chest and proudly tromped down the street in fishnets doesn’t mean that assholes across the continent are going to stop using sexist language. A lot of people like to make comparisons around ‘taking back’ the word ‘slut’ to the n-word. But as we all know, racists still use this word in a racist way. Because they are racist and because racism is a thing that still exists in our world. You can pretend that, in the last year, ‘slut’ has been taken back to mean ‘awesome-fun-times-sexy-lady’, but it’s not true.

5) Half of the time people talk about being ‘slut-shamed’ or witnessing ‘slut-shaming’, it’s about clothes. Not sex. Someone thought you or your buddy was dressed ‘like a slut’. Your response was to say that, apparently, some ‘slut-shaming’ happened. But I’m confused now. Which is it? Is it that women who ‘like sex’ are being shamed? Or is it that women who wear push-up bras are being shamed? Because, for the record, wearing ‘slutty’ clothes has nothing to do with liking sex or not liking sex.

The point I’m trying to get across here is that this language is confusing and, rather than take apart virgin/whore, good girl/bad girl dichotomies and rather than address the root of the ‘slut’ language (which is misogyny), ‘slut-shaming’ skirts around these things.

Not only that but the supposed reclamation of this language has served to reverse these dichotomies in a decidedly unhelpful way. So now, the ‘good girl’ is no longer the prude. She is the girl who like to have tons of sex (with dudes). She’s liberated. This is awesome for patriarchy because it provides more soldiers in the ‘feminists are prudes who hate sex’ army. It means that women who don’t like sex (with men, in particular) don’t have valid opinions. Because they’re just maaaad. (Or they have their periods or something. Who really knows.) This phenomenon is also referred to as ‘compulsory sexuality’.

So Salon published a whole article the other day about a study that shows “the sexual double standard is alive and well and still influencing women’s everyday behavior.” Well, fucking duh. Any woman who exists in this world is well fucking aware that she’s always on the verge of being called a slut or a bitch or a cunt or a whore. Because that’s just not something that’s avoidable in our culture. If you turn down a date you might get called a bitch. If you have sex on a first date you might get called a slut. If you get in a fight with your boyfriend because he’s a dickbag, you might get called a whore. I’ve been called a slut for not having sex with someone I did not want to have sex with. So go figure. Either way, women lose. Your being called a bitch or a cunt or a slut or a whore has nothing to do with you actually being any of these things. Frustratingly, the article was entitled: “Study: “Slut-shaming” won’t go away”.

Regardless of the problematic headline, the study highlighted is a good study. The research was lead by Terri Conley who we like very much here at Feminist Current because she busts crap-o evolutionary psychology myths that try to justify sexist stereotypes about male and female behaviour à la ‘Men love sex with everybody all the time! Women hate sex and also want to make babies all the time!’ variety. In this new study, Backlash From the Bedroom, the researchers find that:

…under the right circumstances—that is, when the experience promises to be safe and pleasant—women are just as likely as men to engage in casual sex.

Key words: safe and pleasant. It’s more difficult for women to have casual sex, not because they, as a universal group, necessarily don’t desire it, but because women live in a world that is neither safe or particularly ‘pleasant.’ I’m not saying that if we lived in an equitable society free of sexism and the threat of violence all women would be having casual sex all the time, but I am saying that what we need to understand about men and women and sex is that universalizing based on solely on evolutionary psychology that ignores cultural and social contexts is dumb.

Conley and her colleagues also found that:

Women who accepted a casual sex offer were viewed as more promiscuous, less intelligent, less mentally healthy, less competent, and more risky than men who accepted the same offer,

And indeed! This is a true thing. Because of sexism. Calling women ‘sluts’ is about controlling women.

I mean, lets break this down. Say you engage in consensual sex with some dude. Afterwards, say he feels good and you feel bad. What the hell, right? It felt good at the time, yeah? Often, this man is the one that makes you feel bad. Often he does this on purpose. What the fuck? Why should you feel bad about engaging in consensual sex with a person you were attracted to? Well, for one, because dudes can be fucking assholes. For two, patriarchy doesn’t want women to feel good about themselves. Feeling bad means boob jobs and Girls Gone Wild and faking orgasms. Feeling bad means trying to please men above all else. It means you’ll keep reaching for this thing you can never have. Because pleasing men will never give you real power.

Patriarchy thrives on women’s insecurities.

Hate yourself, patriarchy says. Do it. Do it because the man who sleeps with you and then turns around and makes you feel like a worthless, insignificant, scummy, piece of shit subhuman because his ego needs that in order to survive — he hates you.

Have you ever had sex with someone to punish them? I haven’t. But I sure have been fucked as punishment.

This isn’t ‘slut-shaming’. Fuck that noise. It’s woman hating.

Beware sex therapists bearing books: When porn is the answer to your relationship woes 

Shut-up and spread your legs. That’s the gist of some of the most recent advice offered by Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt to the heterosexual women of the world in her series of books about what men want in bed and why women should give it to them.

Over the last few years, Arndt has variously suggested that men have innately higher sex drives than women; that wives should put out for their husbands, even when they don’t want to have sex; and that women should “stop banging on” about pornography and just accept that all men will use it, including their intimate partners.

There is nothing particularly new or radical about most of this. Such advice merely harks back to a time when performing your wifely duties and ‘lying back to think of England’ was the norm. A time when women were generally assumed to be a-sexual, and masturbating meant risking a referral for clitoridectomy; a surgical procedure to remove the clitoris.

Nor is there anything new in the claim that men can’t help themselves and are slaves to their hormonally hard-wired sex drives. It is this very idea that has often been used to excuse rape on the grounds of biological necessity. It is the same idea that underpins defences of prostitution which suggest we need a class of women to bear the brunt of male sexual violence in order to save the rest of us.

The concept of a completely biologically determined sexuality is reactionary. And Sexologists, clinicians and therapists have asserted pushed this concept now for more than a century, well, at least when it comes to men. In sexological thinking, women are not thought to be so susceptible to sexual urges and instead are seen as requiring helpful ‘advice’, detailing the ‘correct’ way to have sex.

What is new about this recent advice, however, is the acceptance and even praise of pornography. Arndt is not alone in promoting porn and admonishing women who are critical of porn use. A number of high-profile, practicing psychologists and sex therapists in Australia and North America take a similar approach.

Last year, for example, Sydney-based psychologist Raj Sitharthan openly condoned porn use, even endorsing it as “healthy”. He was quoted as saying: “If a male client is enjoying a healthy use of soft-core porn…then I’d probably advise him not to tell his girlfriend for fear of hurting her”. So there’s nothing wrong with porn use then, it’s just these troublesome reactions from girlfriends. Of course, it’s women that have the problem.

Indeed, a recent study found that about 1 in 3 sex therapists in the US actually use pornography as part of their recommended treatment to patients. The few academic articles available on what such treatment actually entails are illuminating. In one article: “Stimulation of the libido: The use of erotica in sex therapy” (erotica in this instance, merely being a euphemism for porn)  New York-based therapists Sharna Striar and Barbara Bartlik explain, not only that pornography use is acceptable, but that couples should actively incorporate it into their sex lives.

In addition, Striar and Bartlik claim that pornography is particularly useful for “couples with incompatible sexual fantasies.” They go on to extol the virtues of porn, explaining that: “it can be used to introduce a partner to a new mode of sexual experience that he or she might otherwise find distasteful or unacceptable”. This advice is often represented as radically liberating when, in actuality, it is outright repressive – it advocates, and attempts to legitimise, a form of sexual coercion.

Indeed, a lot of sex advice literature is deeply conservative and reactionary. Far from allowing an open and honest discussion about sexuality, it serves to shut down discussion altogether by citing spurious notions of biologically determined sexuality. In this view, there is no point in talking about what the joys of sex might be, as sexuality is simply delivered by the stork.

Fortunately, this idea is more fairy-tale than fact. Any sociologist, anthropologist or historian can tell you that sexual practices and norms differ enormously around the world and across time periods. The culture we live in largely determines our sexual norms and even conditions and shapes our own sexual desires, experiences and enjoyment.

Too often we believe that culture is only something that happens elsewhere, or is a remnant of bygone era but we do have a sexual culture in the West and pornography is an increasing part of that culture. It is sheer arrogance to believe that only in the suburbs of the Western world are we able to live out our biologically determined, ‘natural’ sexuality, unaffected by social surroundings.

Acknowledging that sex is a social act may be a challenging idea but it is also genuinely liberating. It provides the freedom to talk about the kinds of sex, sexual pleasure and sexual equality that are possible, rather than retreating to tired old notions of immutable urges. It also moves us forward from the repressive Victorian caricature of the a-sexual woman, needing to be ‘taught’ sexual response to the meet the demands of her husband.

Recognizing the role of the social in sex means that there is a point to “banging on” about porn too. Our sexual tastes and interests can change depending on context and circumstance, so the desire for pornography is no more or less biologically determined than the desire for a cheeseburger. Therefore, we can, and should, question what kind of sexual culture turns titles like Service Animals, Jenna Loves Pain and Meatholes into best sellers.

Those critical of pornography are endlessly accused of being anti-sex, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Porn narrows rather than widens our understanding of what sex is and can be. So if you would like to see a sexuality based on something more than multiple penetrations and watching people paid to fake their own sexual enjoyment, don’t shut up, speak out.

—–

Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She is the author of Selling Sex Short: The  pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West. She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.

Misogyny and porn culture are SO FUCKING IRONIC, say hipsters. Also, fuck hipsters 

Though I occasionally find a good article in Vice, mostly I just find really terrible writing and misogyny/efforts at popularizing pornography. I mean, I like reading about drugs as much as the next person, but I just can’t stomach the constant objectification and glorification of porn (because I’m too fucking uptight or stupid to ‘get’ how objectification is actually artsy and ok if hipsters are doing it).

The magazine has really nailed the whole ‘irony masks racism and sexism‘ thing. It’s also spawned a whole faction of idiot hipsters who think that their writing is deep because it makes no sense. It’s the emperor has no clothes redux. NOBODY SAY ANYTHING JUST SMILE AND NOD AND PAT YOUR BUDDIES ON THE BACK BECAUSE THEY HAVE ALL THE RIGHT HIPSTER CONNECTIONS AND HAVE NEVER WRITTEN ANYTHING BEFORE AND DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ANYTHING INTERESTING TO SAY BUT TODAY THEY DECIDED THEY WERE A WRITER AND HAHA DOES ANYONE HERE REALLY KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON HAHA NO BUT WHATEVER HA THAT CAPTION DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE.

ANYWAY.

Bad writing aside (yeah whatever, people in glass houses, yada yada), I’m getting fucking sick of the whole misogyny disguised as irony thing.

Earlier this week I saw these photos posted from a local hipster night that I’ve actually attended on many occasions. It’s awkward to say so publicly because Vancouver is a small place and because friends of friends etc, but seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you people?

It’s one thing to put up your party photos in your outfits trying to impress one another. It’s absolutely another thing to put up images of girls who are clearly fucked up and wasted spreading their legs for the camera. Did you ask their permission ONCE SOBER whether or not they minded having these images posted publicly? Because if it were me I would fucking mind. Acting like a trashy idiot whilst drunk is par for the course. We ALL do it. Ok, so I do it. But once actions become imagery, said images could possibly be construed as porny and it’s not your GOD GIVEN RIGHT because you know how to work a fucking camera to post this shit on the internet.

And even if all those women did give permission, in sobriety, for you to post their crotch/boob shots online, these images, whether or not you think they’re hip or ironic or funny or whatever, are fucking porny.

But I digress. The initial reason for this post was actually to address Jezebel’s new sex advice columnist, Karley Sciortino, who’s blog, Slutever got her a show at Vice under the same name.

In her inaugural column at Jezebel, Sciortino addresses facials and something called “pussy whipping” (Which I didn’t know was a thing either. APPARENTLY it’s “when someone hits your vagina with a whip”. Good to know, good to know.). And whatever, do what you want I guess. But for someone who is a) writing a sex advice column, so like, one would assume we would have thoughts and opinions on things and issues relating to sex, and b) writing a sex advice column for a feminist-ish site, responding to the issue of pussy whipping by saying:

In my mind, asking my view on pussy-whipping, or facials, is equivalent to asking, “What are your views on can openers?” These are all just things that exist in the world, and we don’t need to take a stance on them. There are certain matters that deserve careful consideration (i.e. casting an actress to play yourself in the movie version of your life); some casual jizz on your face isn’t one of them.

Um, what? Pussy whipping is the same as can openers? HAVING OPINIONS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT THINGS IS SO STUPID YOU GUYS.

She goes on:

People — women in particular — really need to get over the “is this degrading?” thing. If you have to stop and think about whether something is degrading or not, then it probably isn’t. I understand there are complex emotions involved in sex, so everything isn’t always black and white, but I also think that sometimes girls’ brains become so clouded by bullshit “feminist” ideals — “thou shall not be treated like an object,” “thou shall always be offended by men’s pervy remarks” (as if we are not equally adept at dismissing them, and dishing them out) — that we spoil our own fun.

Ok so no. Women do NOT in ANY WAY need to get over the “‘is this degrading?’ thing.” They do not need to stop thinking about things and questioning things like objectification and misogynist comments AKA SEXISM IN ACTION. That isn’t to say that you can’t like what you like or do what you want in the bedroom, but to suggest that thinking about and questioning our behaviour and sexuality is a stupid waste of time because, I don’t know, IT’S ALL SO IRONIC AND WE’RE SO BLAZÉ AND APATHETIC ABOUT EVERYTHING BECAUSE THINKING ABOUT THINGS AND CARING ABOUT THINGS IS SO LAME, is the worst, most thoughtless, boring-ass “advice” I’ve ever heard.

And then there’s the dig at feminism. That one really takes the cake: “Sometimes girls’ brains become so clouded by bullshit “feminist” ideals…” Really? REALLY??? Our brains are clouded by oh-so-powerful feminism? That’s like saying our brains are clouded by thoughts. “Oh y’all are just thinking to much. Let patriarchy take care of this for you.”

When the response to perfectly valid questions about whether or not a sexual act may or may not be degrading (and no, that doesn’t mean it is black and white – there can be BOTH nuance and critical thought for people who are ok with using tools such as critical thinking — BUT EW GROSS THAT’S FEMINISM ISN’T IT??) is “don’t worry your pretty little head about that”, that pretty much means that we’re supposed to let patriarchy do the thinking for us.

So what have we learned from this sex advice column, folks? Caring about and thinking about things JUST ISN’T COOL. And whatever, that’s fine for Vice. We expect that from them. We expect casual misogyny because giving a fuck isn’t a thing that the cool kids do – but for a site like Jezebel, which sort of aims to provide feminism-lite style commentary on issues and events, to hire a sex advice columnist who tells women to stop thinking so much and then slags feminism for brainwashing us into using our powers of critical thought is total bullshit.

Time to start caring about shit, hipsters. You look like a bunch of assholes. LIKE YOU CARE.

Facials, feminism, & performance: On f**king men in a patriarchy 

As feminists, sleeping with men is always going to be a little fraught.

Not getting to the actual act, per se – jumping into bed with people we feel like jumping into bed with can be pretty straightforward – rather the politics surrounding feminists having sex with men within the context of a patriarchy as well as, of course, the maintenance of a sexual relationship with a man in the long-term.

Applying the phrase, ‘the personal is political’, seems particularly difficult when we are talking about an act that can be very private and very personal. Certainly sex is one of those things that can make us feel extremely vulnerable. Including politics or even acknowledging that, in one way or another, there is a larger context to our behaviour, when it comes to sex, is something that I would say leaves something to be desired. Particularly for women, who work so hard to shake the inner and outer critic that says: ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you’re not hot enough’, ‘you’re too slutty’, ‘you’re not slutty enough’ – I get why we might want to avoid opening themselves up to (further) public critique in the form of feminism. ‘Get the fuck out of my bedroom’ does strike me as a remarkably reasoned response.

That said, I’m not one to take individual acts as simply individual acts.

Recently, Emily McCombs posted a piece at xojane.com about her love of facials (no, not the kind you get at the spa). She wrote:

No, I don’t feel degraded by it, nor do I think my male partners’ enjoyment of said act means they hate women.  I mean, if they did, there are faster ways to oppress us than one shot in the face at a time.

She adds: “My orgasms are a politics-free zone.”

So ok. I also want politics to stay the hell out of my orgasms. BUT OH THEY JUST WON’T. I can’t help but acknowledge that sometimes the things we do or want or say in the bedroom are not entirely free of ‘politics’. Being aware that the larger context that, for example, might create a desire for a man to cum on our faces might possibly include, well, porn for one, doesn’t make you a bad person for enjoying that act. I think that it’s possible for an act to be symbolically degrading without an individual necessarily feeling degraded by that act in all cirucumstances. Feeling degraded isn’t necessarily necessary in order to acknowledge that often our desires are shaped by a larger culture that has worked very hard, for a very long time, to sexualize the degradation of women. And that acknowledgment does not mean the same thing as saying: “you are bad and wrong and unfeminist and ruining feminism for everyone because of the things that turn you on in bed.” Nope. Not the same.

To me, I just can’t see the point of being a feminist if I’m not going to ask ‘why?’ about most everything. I ask why I keep shaving my legs, why I’m unable to eat food for the entire day before a first date (I get nervous, you guys!), why I think buying shoes will make my life better, and I ask why I feel or think or do the things I do in bed with a man. Sometimes I even think about why I go to bed with men in the first place. Is this biological or social? Would I be a lesbian if I hadn’t been conditioned towards heterosexuality? Some of these questions I have answers to, others I’m not quite sure about. But I know this: much of my sexual history and behaviour has been determined by factors including my growing up a girl in a man’s world.

My thoughts, desires, insecurities, and behaviours are not suddenly cordoned off from a larger culture once I close the bedroom door. I also don’t believe I’m being degraded every time I have sex with a man, though many accuse feminists of holding this belief. I actually don’t know a single feminist, in person, who believes that.

Like McCombs, I don’t see semen as “dirty or offensive”  — though I’m not convinced that that’s what Dworkin meant when she said:

The ejaculation on her is a way of saying (through showing) that she is contaminated with his dirt; that she is dirty.

First off, I think there is a difference between the images we see in pornography, which is what Dworkin is referencing in this quote from her 1993 speech Pornography Happens to Women, and what we do as individuals in the bedroom (though these two may well be connected). When we see a man ejaculating onto a woman’s face in pornography, it is reasonable to view that act as representative of women’s subordination. Mainstream pornography is generally, as Dworkin describes, about things happening to women’s bodies. Things are done to their bodies. Men are the actors, and male fantasies are projected onto the bodies of women.

In film theory everything has meaning. Everything is symbolic. Similarly, in pornography, as Dworkin points out “everything means something.” Gender means something, bodies mean something, body parts mean something, the acts done to women mean something. Getting a facial in your bedroom doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as a woman getting a facial in a porn movie does and, in fact, the relevance of whether or not the individual actress in the porn appears to be ‘enjoying’ the cum shot to her face is less important than the larger meaning of the image on screen. I am not at all surprised that “the majority of porn shows women basking in and positively loving receiving a facial” or that “a lot more straight porn features women happily accepting facials than reacting with disgust and evident humiliation” because women in porn are presenting a fantasy and that fantasy is that women enjoy being objectified, cum on, gang-raped, called whores and bitches, whatever. Porn is about male fantasy. The fantasy is that women like everything you do to them, as man.

So how does this translate into real life? Women spend a lot of time and energy trying to please men. We learn early on that we are being looked at – that we are to be looked at. That we are performers. It took years before I actually started enjoying sex. YEARS. I think what I enjoyed most about sex, when I was younger, was the feeling of being desired. The actual sex part was super boring for the first while.

We learn, as girls and women, that the performance is more important than the actual feeling. Do you know how many women can’t actually relax during sex because they are so self-conscious about whether or not their stomachs look flabby? A lot. Read Cosmo (which actually suggests facing away from your partner during sex if you feel self-conscious about your body!?). HOW THE HELL ARE WOMEN SUPPOSED TO HAVE ORGASMS WHEN THEY ARE WORRYING ABOUT WHAT THEIR STOMACHS LOOK LIKE? And in other news, are men everywhere having trouble relaxing and cumming while they are in bed with women because they’re concerned their pecs aren’t muscly enough? Sigh.

What I’m saying is that, when we feel that sex is a performance it impacts, well, our performance. And the reason we see ourselves as performers in the bedroom, the reason that we’re thinking about our appearances, and the sounds we’re making, and our facial expressions, is in large part because of the porn/pornified images we have seen onscreen.

So same goes for facials. It’s more than likely that women learned this was hot from porn. And that is troubling. Because I think emulating porn doesn’t help us enjoy our bodies or sex, nor does it help us relax and have pleasure in bed. In fact it inhibits it in many ways.

All that said, I actually completely agree with McCombs when she says: “We can recognize our influences while still liking what we like.” We don’t have to have sex in any prescribed way simply because we are feminists. But to say that “sexism doesn’t get to dictate what I can and can’t enjoy” isn’t entirely true. Because in many ways it does and it has. All the fucked up ways I behave in my life were, as far as I can tell and in one way or another, determined by my experience being socialized in a patriarchal society. That doesn’t mean I need to hate myself for it. It doesn’t even mean I need to stop behaving in those ways or thinking those weird, unhealthy things about my face/life/body/boyfriends. But it sure doesn’t hurt to recognize how sexism factors into the equation. In fact, I think that understanding the way that sexism has messed with my head is the only way to overcome it (eventually).

Feminism has made sex better for me. Not worse. Feminism hasn’t limited me, it’s helped me to understand me. It’s helped me understand what I’m comfortable with, who I’m comfortable with, and what I’m comfortable doing. It hasn’t made me ashamed. What made me ashamed was the not knowing. The trying to fit into some pornified version of the me I thought I was supposed to be. Why didn’t I like all of the things I thought I was supposed to like? Without feminism I thought I just wasn’t liberated enough to enjoy degradation. That was a whole bunch of bullshit. I don’t need to dress up in cheesy lingerie and put on a strip show in order to prove how empowered I am because I don’t actually need to prove anything to anyone. Thanks feminism!

This isn’t to say that I’m constantly having perfect, empowered, multiple-orgasm, insecurity-free sex either. It doesn’t mean that I don’t catch myself performing at times. The sexism is still there folks! Inside the bedroom. Inside my head. But I’m done trying to enjoy or pretending to enjoy things that feel boring/painful/degrading because I feel like that’s what sexy girls do.

So I don’t particularly want politics in my bedroom either, but they’re there. Whether we like it or not. As long as we’re feminists and we’re living in a patriarchy, it’s very likely that we’re going to desire or enjoy things in the bedroom that might make us uncomfortable or confused or uncertain. We might wonder why sometimes we feel as though we are performing, why we asked to be spanked, or why we love getting facials. I’m never going to tell anyone to stop liking those things but I’m also not going to pretend as though that facial isn’t symbolic. You aren’t fucking in a bubble and yet you also can have your desire. Have it without shame. No one’s here to police the sex you are having but as we move forward in this world and on our paths as feminists, so long as we are sleeping with men, politics will be in the bedroom, in one way or another.

But yes, you can keep your orgasms.