Terminology (or, This Isn’t Sex), Pt. 2 found here
There comes a time in every grown-up’s life when they have a sobering revelation: their parents were right.
One of the things I’ve noticed during my Feminist Journey ™ is how I’ve become critical of things that I used to think were totes cool. Well, okay, that’s not news, but I have more, I swear! I’ve become critical of things I not only used to be interested in, but used to support because I thought they were progressive, or empowering, or some vague force for good in the world. Case in point: Cosmopolitan Magazine.
15-year-old TRN: OMG there’s this magazine that talks about SEX and it’s right there in the CHECKOUT LANE and it acknowledges women’s libidos and doesn’t call them sluts and helps them have better sex and become Fun, Fearless, Females! Clearly this is not only hot, but AWESOME. I feel so morally superior to all those prudes who don’t want me to read it, because they’re afraid of SEX, especially premarital sex, and especially the ladies doing it. They just don’t like women being happy with themselves as sexual beings! I feel validated in being a female with an actual sex drive! Cosmo is the best magazine ever!
22-year-old TRN: OMG I immediately die a little inside when I meet someone who takes Cosmopolitan seriously. I can’t believe I ever liked that magazine. Sure, it does manage to stray away from the Madonna-whore dichotomy of women’s sexuality, but that’s about the only good thing I can say about it. Its sex tips are not only repeated every month, but completely ridiculous. It’s so heteronormative that I don’t think I’ve ever, in the dozens of issues in multiple languages I’ve read over the years, seen a single mention of a non-heterosexual romantic or sexual interaction. It promotes hackneyed gender stereotypes and “relationship tips” (I once read one where they advised women to pretend not to be able to do certain things, i.e. open jars, in order to help your man feel manly). Oh yeah, and they’re also rape apologists.
Obviously, there are many reasons why I think differently now then I did in middle and high school. But you know what? If someone had actually said the latter paragraph to me when I was at the height of my Cosmo phase, I might have listened – probably not as much as I do now, but I would have least understood the idea that there were objections to Cosmo other than OH NOEZ LADIES HAVING SEX AND LIKING IT. It’s gotten to the point (documented well by Ariel Levy) where the social conservatives in our society are demonizing sexuality and fetishizing virginity so much that any frank depiction of sex, particularly with women involved, comes as a relief (you think women should cover up all their skin? Well, I’m going to get NAKED!). Of course, it’s usually a false idol, as objectifying women and portraying them as perennially thin, hairless sex machines just dying for a good “pounding” is neither novel nor particularly helpful. But I wonder how much of the criticism that when I was a teenager I mentally labelled as “socially conservative” (or “prude”, or whatever the hip terminology was) was actually based on principles that I would agree with now.
Another example is the current kerfluffle with Apple and iPhone apps. For those just tuning in, Apple recently decided to ban ~5,000 apps for the iPhone because they were objectifying to women. I don’t have an iPhone, but I have read about the really creepy apps they’ve had in the past – really racist, predatory, and just plain misogynist. Apparently the number of people complaining started to actually affect their profits, or publicity, or some other thing big corporations care about, because they instituted a bunch of new criteria that (most) apps have to conform to.
And what of our liberal-minded dude friends? Did they rejoice with us that people would no longer be amused by looking up an animated character’s skirt against her will, or spend hours making imaginary boobs wobble? I mean, after all, we all know that the conservative men are the prudes, the anti-sex ones! If there are things that make women feel creeped out and objectified and unsafe, then surely our progressive man-friends will support us, as is the liberal way!
Well (SPOILER ALERT) – not quite.
Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy does a good job of compiling some of the most ridiculous comments posted on a Gizmodo article about the new rules. Frequent mentions of censorship, the Parent’s Television Council, prudes, virgins, social conservatives, 1984/Big Brother, and how “empowering” the Suicide Girls strip app was for women (making conventionally attractive women take off their clothes for you! Groundbreaking!) abound. In short, there seems to be little or no recognition of the fact that certain things are objectionable for legitimate reasons. Obviously, I think there’s a big disconnect between the “women’s rights = human rights” school of thought and the progressiveness of a certain segment of the left-wing male population, who seem to think that voting for the occasional pro-choice candidate and watching ’30 Rock’ makes you woman-friendly; even if they do or did understand the feminist point of view, they just don’t care. But how many people are we losing to this mainstream point of view by hesitating to use (gasp!) social justice terminology, invoke standard 101 arguments, or being anything other than totally “sex-positive”?
I know I’m treading dangerously close to the Porn Wars here, but I think we can all agree on some things. Treating women like walking boob display cases, devoid of any emotion or attribute other than jiggliness? Not sexy, and not sex. Fantasizing about sexually assaulting a woman who wears a short skirt in public, by peeking up it to see her crotch? Not sexy, and not sex. Even saying the phrase “gray rape” in a nonironic way? Not sexy, and not sex. Women becoming sex workers because of desperation and poverty, and the increasing “acceptance” of this since our economic downturn? Not sexy, and not sex. None of these things do anything to:
- End women’s sexual oppression and objectification, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and dichotomization of female sexuality
- Increase the sexual pleasure or happiness of actual women
- Promote new and positive role models, or ideals, or options for women. It’s the same old shit, wrapped in a pink ribbon and a heaping helping of “empowerful“.
In short, not every depiction of sex is the same. Sometimes the person with the vintage nudie mags isn’t celebrating the diversity of the human form; sometimes the connoisseur of “lesbian” porn isn’t actually a proponent of LGBT rights; sometimes the porn film entitled “Women Who Know What They Want, and Get It!” isn’t actually about women’s sexual agency*. That’s something I didn’t fully realize when I was younger, and I regret it. But how many other people feel the same way, and are afraid or unable to articulate it? Maybe your dad didn’t have a problem with you masturbating to porn, he had a problem with the fact that it was bukkake (no link for you). Maybe your mom didn’t care that you were reading smutty books, she cared that all of the Harlequin titles have really rapey titles like “The Italian’s Inexperienced Mistress“. Maybe the reason your sister wasn’t uncomfortable about the scantily-clad women on your walls because good girls should practice modesty, but because it reminds her that most women are expected to drastically alter and “maintain” their bodies just to meet a minimum standard of “acceptable”.
I think one of the saddest parts about the backlash to feminism is the inability of people, particularly women, to be able to be taken seriously about legitimate concerns regarding matters such as sexual consent, objectification, or other important feminist issues. You can either embrace the stripper workouts, the incredibly graphic depictions of forced fellatio found in most pornography, the rising demand for labiaplasty, anal bleaching, and vulva dyeing, or you’re a prude. Because feminism is dead/no longer necessary/was never necessary and everything is as equal as it could possibly be, if not skewed towards the female half of the population, the only possible arguments against Marge Simpson being on the cover of Playboy are anti-sex/anti-woman/anti-masturbation/anti-freedom. So a lot of not-explicitly-feminist people just criticize using the avenues currently available, which are also the ones used by social conservatives, even if their end goal is the antithesis of whatever Phyllis Schlafly or Laura Sessions Stepp are currently vomiting. The spirit is willing but the Angry Feminist Pwnage is weak.
So, retrospectively, maybe the prudes and the squares are sometimes right in spirit, even if they have a completely unproductive way of expressing it. Next time someone says something like “Lady Gaga is such a bad role model!” or “I just don’t think Baywatch is a good show for children to watch”, ask them why (and feel free to condemn them if their criticism is based on anachronistic reasoning). Maybe someday, everyone will be able to articulate it in a way that actually promotes equality, rather than masquerading as garden-variety sexism. And maybe, on an even later someday, those arguments will be taken as seriously as the potential loss of exploitative masturbatory fodder is taken today.
*I know, I know. “Sometimes” is an understatement.