The other night I got a glowing e-mail from two of my readers (hi Kaeli and Candace!) who follow me on Twitter. It was really amazing to read someone’s heartfelt expressions of gratitude, but most of the letter that quite a few questions for me. My answer, in my mind, was a little too big, so I decided to answer it here instead of privately. Here is the e-mail, slightly edited to take out the effusive praise, since I’m already blushing:
I’m a seventeen-year-old female from Canada, and I have a question for you, which I will get around to asking eventually. I actually stumbled across your blog and Twitter account while educating myself on feminism in March. Up until a few months ago, the word ‘feminist’ conjured up an image of an emotionally unstable, man-hating woman that would assign sexist undertones to issues that didn’t even exist in the first place. I thought it was more than obvious that women were just being irrational. I thought it was more than obvious that sexism hasn’t existed for decades and anyone who said that it was institutionalized in our society was ignorant and delusional. I thought a lot of ridiculous things, which I now realize was only indicative of how I was the one being irrational, ignorant, and delusional.
[snip praise here]
Now that I’ve expressed my admiration for you, I can get into the meat of this topic: the concept of raunch culture and how it affects the expression of female sexuality. This is something that has been on my mind since reading your blog post about male validation. I have held the belief that women should not be defined by or condemned for their sexuality. If a woman wants to wear make-up because it’s what she wants to do for herself, she should be able to without being demonized for it. If a woman wants to wear a short skirt because it’s what she wants to do for herself, she should be able to without being demonized for it. If a woman wants to be open about her sexuality for herself, she should be able to without being demonized for it. The issue that I am presenting to you is: are women really doing it for themselves? Has the seeking of male validation and the male gaze become so ingrained in women and internalized by them, that though they think performances of sexuality are empowering, they are actually only doing it for the approval of men?
I was thinking that female sexuality is only portrayed by the media in a very specific (and possibly skewed) manner that is meant to appeal only to heterosexual men, yet it is still repressed in a way. As an example, I feel that when men are shown frontally nude in mainstream movies, it is for comedic effect, but the depiction of a nude female is something that is usually erotically charged to fulfill male desire. However, I feel like female genitalia is rarely shown in mainstream movies, which is maybe telling of how female sexuality is actually repressed to a certain degree. I feel like this issue can be applied to pornographic movies as well. I have been pro-pornography despite having issues with how very performative it is on the part of women as it dictates a stifling standard of what is sexy and what is not. I feel like heterosexual porn is usually focused on the woman performing and acting “sexy” in that very specific way for the satisfaction of a heterosexual male viewer; girl-on-girl porn is fetishized and equally as performative on part of the women involved, again, for the satisfaction of a heterosexual male viewer, while porn involving only men is looked down upon because it does not satisfy a heterosexual male viewer. After deciding to research this idea further, I stumbled across a book that addresses this issue called Female Chauvinist Pigs (you have likely heard of it because u r supr smrt, but I will briefly explain it just in case you haven’t). I read a synopsis of it because I am too poor to afford the paperback (lmao), but it argues that “many women engage in performances of sexuality that are not expressions of their individual sexuality, but are designed for the pleasure of the male observer(s)”. I feel like maybe it’s an issue of the oppressed trying to please their oppressors in a feeble attempt to avoid discrimination; in this case, women sexually objectifying themselves to attain an equal status to men by making themselves sexual playthings and basically the embodiment of white, heterosexual male desire.
This has left me questioning my own sexuality and how I express it, and whether I am doing it for personal liberation or if I am unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes of what female sexuality is. Now, I am a white, heterosexual female and I have a white, heterosexual, cisgendered boyfriend who is twenty-years-old. I know that seeking male validation is something that is so deeply entrenched in me and I want to continue to distance myself from it. I know that sexual acts with somebody should be fulfilling for yourself, as well as pleasing for the other person regardless of their gender or sex. I am worried that my boyfriend’s expectations for what constitutes “being sexy” are these terribly performance-based acts, and that I possibly am only doing things for his satisfaction. When I buy “sexy” underwear, maybe it only makes me feel confident because I receive approval from a man for following these arbitrary standards for what “sexy” is. When I do my makeup before my boyfriend comes over, maybe it only makes me feel confident because I am conforming to the conventional standards of beauty, which my boyfriend might approve of. When I have sex with my boyfriend, maybe I mostly enjoy it because I am pleasing a man by objectifying myself in a manner that satisfies the male gaze.
These are all only ideas that I am throwing around as I am unsure of how I feel, so I am wondering what you think of the issues that I’ve presented to you, and the ideology explained in Female Chauvinist Pigs. What is your opinion on pornography, the portrayal of female sexuality, and where the line is drawn between obtaining personal fulfillment and seeking male approval? I am dying of anxiousness to hear your response, be it over e-mail or through a blog post. Please keep in mind that I turned seventeen in December and that I still don’t have anywhere near a full grasp on any of these issues. I apologize for the long (and likely convoluted) e-mail.
YOU ARE FUQQIN’ RAD AS HELL,
There’s a lot of stuff to break down here. Female sexuality is one of those giant, looming topics that feminism always struggles to talk about from a myriad of angles. Where a feminist falls in her beliefs about those facets tends to fall around some pretty weighty questions:
- How is female sexuality being performed?
- Who is this performance for?
- How is it being received?
The answers that feminists struggle with, even within themselves as sexual beings, has given rise to quite a few schools of thought and I definitely have a lot of feelings on the matter.
I too feel that women should not be defined or condemned for their sexuality. The reason for this is because sexual performances from a woman are just as valid as a man’s. Women’s sexuality and sexual acts have long been regarded as dirty or should be kept secret, or only for men. This is extremely erroneous and definitely comes from patriarchal culture. Removing stigma from women acting in a sexual way that is for themselves is a big part of that. Accepting that sexual performances are for the person performing them and her intended sexual audience (which very often does not include men, see: queer women) is pretty key here.
But herein lies the problem, and you addressed this with your question: are women doing it for themselves?
This is a question that even I ask myself on a regular basis. It’s exceptionally hard to point at any one woman acting sexually and make that judgement, especially as other women. But if we look at the culture at large, it becomes pretty obvious to us that a lot of sexual performances seem to be done for and designed with a male audience in mind. This is what is referred to in media criticism as the “male gaze.” It assumes that the person viewing a woman behaving sexually in popular media is always a heterosexual man. How heterosexual men have defined women’s sexuality is fairly narrow and centered on themselves, and thus these performances are rigid and ties into a lot more sinister ideas about a woman’s consent, her autonomy as a person, her body being public property and sex being violent. So, seemingly, in media especially, women are not performing sexually for themselves. But it’s very hard to point at a particular woman and say that. We have to look at these issues in a larger fashion lest we get caught up in focusing on women and not what women have been oppressed by.
A lot of this comes back to your points about choice – women make choices. Choice feminism itself revolves around that idea, that women have a variety of paths they can create for themselves. Third wave feminism largely is about that; what it means to be a “woman” is everything and how a woman defines it. My criticism of choice feminism in general though, as well as just the whole “I want to do this” is when we don’t look hard at why we are making those choices. A lot of times, they might not really be a choice at all. A choice insinuates making conscious decisions between a multitude of options. The things we do as women, as feminists, are not inherently feminist or for ourselves by the mere act itself because a lot of our motivations are so thoroughly ingrained in what male-driven culture expects of us. Our so-called “options” are limited. This is what I was trying to clarify in my last blog post. The things I do, despite identifying as feminist, may not always be feminist. This comes sharply into focus when the subject is female sexuality. We as women need to identify the structures of patriarchy that define us and try to reject them. We need to examine our own motivations and performances for things that might not be our authentic selves. The depressing part is that there might not be a way of completely unburdening yourself from these pressures; it might be just things you are not comfortable with doing (like say, keeping body hair) or it might be harmful for you to do so (there are legitimately dangerous downsides to some women not behaving “properly” around men). But what I urge you, and any other woman to do, is just look at where the choices you make come from. No one should fault you for performing in a way that plays well with male-driven sexuality but it is something to look at critically. This is why it is so hard sometimes to not feel guilty or ashamed, even if you are a feminist, because you feel like everything you do is under a microscope, especially if you predominantly interact with men in a sexual way. I’m a queer woman and I still feel the sting of this. Even women who identify as lesbian/queer can still feel the problematic glare of what women are expected to enjoy or look like in the bedroom. A lot of feminists have asserted that it’s very hard to act as a sexual being completely free from the desires of patriarchy at all. Dworkin herself even said that consent (which is whole other facet of sexual performance, especially with regards to rape culture) is meaningless in our society. It gives you a lot to think about.
Pornography, by that line of thinking, is one of the hottest spots of debate within feminism especially when it comes to choice, pervasive male culture and sex performance. On the surface, it seems like it should exist. I believe that, ideally, women can be a part of this media or create this media themselves for their sexual appetites and entertainment. This is an extremely idealistic and surface view. The problem that so many feminists, as well as myself, have with pornography (rather than women who participate in it), is that it was created and is shaped by quite a few rigid and dangerous views of sexuality. It is a fairly exploitative industry and peddles a lot of disgusting, dangerous views about women’s bodies, sexuality and sexual autonomy. A lot of women who are involved in pornography make the choice to be there, but a lot of them are coerced or pressured due to financial concerns. Sex workers in general need our regard, rather our scorn. A lot of the practices and business involved in sex work are corrupt, involve themselves blindly or knowingly in human trafficking or “softer” means of involving women in porn, prostitution or stripping. Pornography is a huge business that makes a lot of money off exploiting the performances of women. These performances, especially in mainstream porn made for men and by men, reinforce a lot of problematic ideas. Not all pornography is bad, truly, but the idea and the presentation of so much of it is legitimately harmful as well as harmful to the women who participate. This is largely why it is such a contentious topic. My feelings on the matter is that we should abolish pornography as a media form dominated by men, upheld by coercive and inhumane practices and promoting unhealthy attitudes towards sex. Pornography in a lot of ways is an extension of our culture’s views on women’s place in sex and her performances therein. Creating porn that embodies healthy attitudes, non-coercive behaviour, and treats its participants fairly and equitably is what I’d love to see in the future but that seems like an unrealistic goal at this time. However, at this present moment, we need to save our regard and criticism for the culture and industry and not shame sex work participants.
In that vein, I can see where the confusion comes from how you personally express yourself as a sexual being. So much of the lessons we are taught as women is that there is very strict consequences for not obliging a man’s sexual desires. That our sexuality is tied into acting one way, looking a certain way. It loops back and conflicts with itself because it is a design not of our own making. It doesn’t respect us as individuals, only as things to be consumed and molded. Women are objectified to the extreme and we are no more than dolls, it seems. How are you supposed to feel sexy when we’re constantly surrounded by stuff like this? This is a question I’ve struggled to answer all my life and I’m still not sure myself. Having feminism at your back helps, but you still feel beholden to what culture believes about us sexually. Understanding where sexual culture comes from and how you fit into it helps. Knowing where your choices comes from also helps. But holding yourself up to a ridiculously impossible standard when it comes to “pleasing men” will probably be hard. No one is perfect, especially if you interact sexually with men, and as I mentioned before, there isn’t always a safe way to express yourself completely. Making sure you are safe and content is the best you can do sometimes, and if that means a pair of panties, then you go right ahead. The problem a lot of women don’t recognize about ourselves is that we’re not the ones “making mistakes” when we fail to live outside pervasive sexual culture. We’re not the ones who created the so-called “gilded cage” we find ourselves locked up in. Women perform sexually in regards to men because it is how you make it in our society some days. It is all part of our terrible bargain that we’ve struck, being born into a world that doesn’t treat us as equals. But it means that if we want to navigate safely through it, we have to do things we might not want to, and it doesn’t mean you’re failing as a person and especially not as a woman or feminist.
To Kaeli and Candace: I know it’s super hard sometimes. These are questions we all wrestle with as women, especially as feminists. How do we make choices like this, especially when they never feel like choices at all? How do we deal with the things we do and how do we make ourselves happy? To me, the key to that is constantly learning and growing, fighting. I wish I had known these things at your age, as it has taken me years of shame, struggle and danger to get where I am now at 30 years old. You guys seem like very self-aware, intelligent women and the idea that you’re going to navigate your adult years armed with more information and reflection than I did at that age makes me feel gladdened. This is why I do the things I do, to make sure that people see what I learned the hard way and spared that. I’m glad you guys wrote me. There is intense, immense strength in reaching out to other women with these questions and that’s ultimately why feminism is so important. Asking the tough things of yourself and others, and being unafraid to reach out for help and discussion is what props you up on the days when shit gets you down. Read all you can, talk to as many women as you can, fill your head with knowledge, criticism and love.
Thank you for writing, I hope I answered you guys satisfactorily.