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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fucking: What's feminism got to do with it?

I tried to write this last night and was so addled from doing the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer I could barely think, so here's what I've got so far, I hope to add to this, and apologies if it's a bit disjointed, but I wanted to get this up while it's still timely.

This is going to start with four cliched words: I'm a feminist but...I don't think feminism and fucking are quite as intertwined as they are sometimes tagged as being. That is not to say I think they're unrelated, but there is not always an obvious connection, and that's a good thing.

What do I mean? Well, let's look at Karen Owen and the Duke Fuck List. Much of the discussion about the list asked the question of whether what she wrote was an example of "feminist empowerment." But that idea in itself almost mocks feminism, because it means that anything a woman does is automatically assumed to be speaking for all women and having some grand meaning rather than an individual one.

Jasper Hamill wrote in Scotland's The Herald:

No-one admires the misogynistic way sports teams objectify women, so why on earth would we admire the same thing flipped on its head?

Why does that question automatically have to be asked? Why does every woman, whether or not she's a feminist, have to be a stand-in for all women and all of feminism? Isn't that just another version of putting women on a pedestal, except this time it's a feminist one?

Witness Catherine Cai in The Emery Wheel:

But to call Owen a feminist hero would be a disgusting misinterpretation of the events. By assigning worth to individuals based on appearances and sexual performances, she’s only reversing the roles, not doing away with them. In the end, Owen is not empowering women, but simply subscribing to the same patriarchal system that feminists have fought against for decades, one that insists on a dominant party and a subordinate party.

Feminism is also not about women’s domination over men, power plays, reversing the tables or spite. That counterproductive approach is what gave rise to such negative terms as “feminazi” and “manhater,” which, at the end of the day, only detract from the movement. Feminism should be about women’s self empowerment — a simple and worthy goal that’s too often lost in translation.


I think to take something that was never intended to be shown publicly (unless that is all a ruse and it was a wonderful media ploy, but I don't believe that) and try to assign some grander meaning on Owen's part is problematic, to say the least. Whether or not it was empowering for Owen is a different question from whether or not the list's public spectacle is "empowering" for all women. This is the same question that came up ad nauseam about Sex and the City, though there it was slightly more valid, as that was a television show aimed at the public, but still, it was never allowed to just be entertainment, and Samantha Jones was repeatedly held up as a negative example of "sexual empowerment." But was she trying to be a feminist heroine (or hero) or, like Owen, perhaps, just herself? Do we need to hold up every promiscuous woman as the "new" feminist icon?

This is not 1994, and we have moved on from the Tad Friend-coined term "do me feminism," though there are still plenty of feminist sex activists, women who are starting sex toy stores, sharing information, providing options.

The problem becomes when we start to make judgments against women like Owen because we don't want her to be held up as an icon. "That's fine for her, but..."

Tom Leonard in the Daily Mail, to my mind, misread the original Jezebel post when he wrote:

Meanwhile, critics are ­particularly offended that she is being held up as a ­champion of female sexuality and empowerment. Feminist icon ­status beckons.

Two websites that printed her ‘thesis’ claim they have been approached by the William ­Morris talent agency, the publisher ­HarperCollins and a film company, desperate to get hold of Owen to discuss book or film deals.

An editor at HarperCollins was quoted as speaking about the student’s ‘sense of self-empowerment’.

The women’s website Jezebel ­proclaimed: ‘Here’s another reminder that women can be as aggressive, or acquisitive, about sex as men can. And there’s ­nothing wrong with that, as long as all ­parties are consenting.’


I think this is the same reason that a lot of women, myself included, have struggled with our own masochism and kinkiness, especially when our play partners are men, because that seems to smack of some kind of antifeminist imagery. In other words, how can you be a feminist and like: to get tied up, verbally degraded, choked, spanked, exposed, etc., by a man? Those kinks are held up as examples that we often internalize about how we are supposed to behave, and rarely does the female dominant/male submissive get mentioned.

When I've edited the Best Sex Writing series, I get a disproportionate number of essays from feminist submissives grappling with how feminism and submission fit together. It's not that this is not a worthwhile topic to write about or consider, but the fact that we belabor it to such a degree means that we do think, on some level, that our individual actions need to be held up as some sort of heroic feminist acts, and that's where I think we've taken the political too far.

I also think that while of course the personal is political, that doesn't mean that everything about an individual's sex life can be reduced to politics. For example...I have trouble orgasming. I'm one of the women that new national sex survey is talking about (not literally, as I wasn't surveyed, but in general), but whenever I see that reduced to a "problem" or called anti-feminist, it makes me feel like there is something personally defective about me.

Perhaps the larger question is: does everything a feminist does have to be "feminist" or can it just be something she does? Because we are never all going to agree on what a proper feminist sex act is, in part because I don't think there can be such a definition. It's like we're being goaded to hold up Owen as a hero or dismiss her as a whore, and I would hope that we could recognize that people do not so easily fit into extremes, and that sex, of all things, is more complicated than that.

I think Megan Carpentier at Jezebel is dead right that women are told:

Don't watch porn, don't give blow jobs, don't go home with just anyone, don't give away the milk so that he doesn't think the cow is free. Don't be an exhibitionist, don't be submissive, don't engage in sex work, don't expect to be loved if you've been too slutty.

BUT, and this is a big but, those things are not then by definition, because they're excoriated by certain segments of society, feminist acts just because a feminist (or a woman) is doing them. That is my main point about this post. Not that feminism and sexuality aren't intertwined, but that we can stand up for sexuality without having to hold women to a higher standard because of feminism.

Or in the words of Jezebel commenter blueberryblackberry:

I practice BDSM and I'm a woman who tops men. It frustrates me when others try to politicize this into a feminist statement (and especially into some kind of bizarre "female supremacy" bullshit). My kink is my kink because it turns me on, not because it aligns with any social or political ideology.

For some kink or a fetish or their sexual expression might be linked to their feminism, but to assume it's so, or to imbue feminist ideals onto sexual acts and motivations without hearing from the participants, is a grave mistake in my opinion, especially when we have people like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach telling us that "How The Condom Culture is Killing Sex". The answer is not that "all casual sex is wonderful" or "empower" or "feminist," but that as autonomous adults, we have the option to engage in casual sex and discover whether it suits us or not.

I will have more to say, especially as this relates to topics like BDSM and female masochism, but I have to head back to the walk.

There is also a very interesting discussion going on at Violet Blue's blog Tiny Nibbles about what the definition of "sex-positive" is that I think can help inform this discussion.

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