I am posting this here because it was the longest comment ever, but a decent blog post length. It is about sex positivity and radical feminism. For the record, I consider myself sex neutral.
It’s a direct response to Clarisse’s post about sex positivity on Feministe. She’s responding to a post by Holly at Pervocracy who is responding, among other things, to Twisty Faster, who herself responded (sort of) to Holly, and basically you should be able to chase down the links if you want them.
Mandolin on Sex Neutrality and Call-Outs, with Lots of Decorative Swearing
Hey Clarisse–I guess some of my issues with sex positivity come from what Twisty says here: “femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization.”
I know Holly says, “I talk about [sex positivity] in terms of promoting enthusiastic consent, promoting body acceptance, promoting the idea of finding out and coming to terms with your own sexual desires.”
Which is, you know, good. (And I haven’t read the pervocracy but I like her comments on manboobz so I am definitely not anti-Holly.) But a lot of the sex-positive stuff I’ve read has been pretty deeply entangled with fatphobia, even the stuff that’s not trying to be. Which, lots of stuff is, so it’s not like I think sex-positive feminists are more fatphobic than other people or even other feminist activists (probably less as a whole!), but sexuality and body issues are really at a–I’m going to say it, “problematic” –crux so…
Well, at heart, I guess, I think some of the assumptions of sex positivity run counter to my experience as an unattractive woman. I’ve tried to pornulate, my goodness. And I’m not trying to say here “I’ve tried to be sexy” or “I’ve tried to be feminine.” Because I am feminine! And I wasn’t trying to be sexy, I was trying to be “sexy,” to be the ideal pornulated female. (And the fact that I never could is one of the big pains of my life since it eventually drove me away from my chosen career.)
And I have been, continue to be, and will always be, disadvantaged in my life, both socially and materially (wages, frex) by my inability to conform. So, you know, you can wear high heels. Great? And they *are* bad for your feet. But I can’t even really wear them. So, it’s like, a really limited choice. First, because I can’t do some of those sexy performance things even if I want (mostly I don’t at this point), but mostly because I’m penalized if I don’t do them.
For them to be fun, for them to be redeemed, they really need to be actually, genuinely, completely voluntary.
And I don’t know the best way of going about that. Attacking the feminine behaviors themselves seems unlikely to work, much as attacking infanticide of female infants seems unlikely to work. You have to break down the goddamn sexism so that the femininity isn’t *required* before it can start to be anything else. Anything even like a choice.
Supporting and reclaiming feminine behaviors… you know, I think it’s complicated. People have to do what people have to do. I wear makeup like whoa and when I was in grad school, I learned to speak as if I was a bit stupider than I was so that social situations were manageable. It is not any person’s onus to flout the system.
And I think social movements benefit from multiple approaches (as I think we’ve discussed before) so I think there is some work on reclaiming that can be done. Some ways that it can reframe femininity, teach people–especially women–that their image of themselves doesn’t have to be bound by the way that patriarchy perceives them. Do I fucking love that shit? I totally do. I love talking to my friends who break those rules and find themselves and love being sex workers and rock out the best clothes ever and take burlesque classes from Dita Von Tease. I love what they do, genuinely, and I love them for doing it.
But that’s not all the work. I think there *has* to be a strain of radical feminism pulling us elsewhere. Because I can fucking adore your joy and your burlesque all I want, but you’re still being socially rewarded for your makeup skills, and I ‘m still being socially punished for my body, and that person over there can’t even afford the kinds of femininity consumerism that would help her from being socially punished.
I think of this stuff as basically like hair straightening, and maybe I’m wrong about this analogy, but from hearing black women talk about hair straightening, it seems like it’s all kind of similar. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting straight hair. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to exaggerate your eyes with purple powder. But those things have costs—expense, pain. And they *are* socially coerced.
Maybe if there was no social coercion you’d throw on a pair of high heels anyway. But how could we know? Culture is ubiquitous and invisible. What would we do in a gender egalitarian society? I have no idea. I know some pieces of what some cultures looked like that were more gender egalitarian than ours, but ours wouldn’t necessarily look like that. I can make a guess that some women would choose to preen the way some men choose to preen and that the social positives would be there, but the social negatives of not preening wouldn’t be the same, or be as severe.
But every time I put on makeup to leave the house, I am complicit. I am adding to the prevailing cultural narrative that women wear makeup and that they need to wear makeup. My presence in the room, wearing makeup, supports that idea.
Now maybe that makeup allows you (using “you” as a generic here) to get through some social situations more easily so that you’re able to do different kinds of political work and that gains society a net benefit.
Or maybe you’re doing something awesomely sex-positive and wonderful and you’re accomplishing wonderful activism. And that wonderful activism totally outweighs your contribution to upholding the idea that “woman=makeup.”
Or maybe it’s something that you just need to do for yourself. Because it benefits you. Because it eases your social anxiety, or helps you get a job you want, or it’s fucking pleasurable. Not everything’s about politics.
But it’s an inevitability. Few actions are totally, unidirectionally good. I wear makeup pretty much every time I leave the house, and by doing so, I contribute to the expectation that “women=makeup,” but it also makes me much more able to participate in public spaces for both personal and cultural reasons. Twisty says giving a blow job is like “sucking on a funk-filled bratwurst” and Holly perceives that as slut-shaming, but for me, it was a dawning permission to go—you know what? I hate blow jobs. It’s not just me. There’s not just something wrong with me. And the comment thread where women shared being forced to give blow jobs and some of the treatment they’d gotten from their boyfriends, you know, that made me go, again. That’s not just me. There’s not just something wrong with me.
Could she have said it in a different way? Yeah. But I’m not sorry she said it.
I’m not sorry Dworkin said that cultural metaphors for sexual intercourse construct it as inherently violating.
I think cultural constructs of oppression are so complicated, so tangled, that they have to be broken apart in many different ways. And sometimes those ways are going to be wonderful, and obnoxious, and insightful, and eye-opening, and off-putting, and kind of fucked up, all at the same time. Just like there are benefits to and problems with the public statement I make when I put on makeup before leaving the house, there are benefits to and problems with the kinds of dialogues we have.
And sure, there are limits to that. Some things are just fucked up. For instance, going off to shoot someone who paints soup cans. Or a random bunch of salon customers. Or, on a much different scale, blog comments about how trans people are STEALING OUR BATHROOMS, which contribute to the oppression of an already oppressed group. That’s just fucked up.
And I’m not saying there are hard limits between something that’s kind of good and simultaneously kind of fucked up, and something that’s just pure fucked up. I can point to examples or one or the other—doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of grays.
But funk-filled bratwursts? Well, it gave me some good. It really did.
For what it’s worth, I think all this is basically the problem I have with [ETA: the critiques of] call-out culture, too. I think it’s really upsetting that some feminists want to go to a base assumption that call outs are in bad faith or bullying. There’s often real substance to the call outs, even the ones that later get kind of fucked up. La Lubu’s right—fashion and class are essentially intertwined (not that that one got fucked up, but it was recent so it came to mind). Idiot (or whatever the word was) *is* an ableist insult. Monica’s guest blog post was by fuck amazingly fatphobic.
That doesn’t make the whole post invalid. That doesn’t make the whole individual who wrote the post invalid. It doesn’t make the blog that posted the post invalid. Monica is probably a fantastic activist even though I personally have no interest in interacting with her. Fucked-up stuff in blog posts doesn’t even necessarily make the person –ist of whatever variety. Or at least no more than most people are. Because everything is shades of gray. I have totally fucked up on ableism issues a zillion billion times and I still do. And I am ableist, but I’m trying not to be. I’m trying to find the anti-ableism that make sense for me as someone who is only recently willing to call herself disabled. I’m not as ableist as I was. It’s not just an on/off, good/bad, valid/invalid thing.
And we forget that. We get into a war about the vocabulary of ableism, and then the person on the other side is all bad, and all wrong, even if you are mostly allies, mostly. The post is not “a post that contains something fucked up” but a post that is bad. The blogger is not “someone who wrote something fucked up” but a blogger who is bad. A call-out is not “a valid point that may or may not have gotten out of hand” but bullying; a person who makes a call-out is not “someone who disagrees with me” but someone acting in bad faith.
I’m not saying I don’t do it, because you know, there are feminist commenters who have so vastly irritated me at some point that I just scroll on past them whenever I see their names in a comment thread anywhere. Send me abusive emails and I start to ignore you even if we do agree on 90% of shit, and even if I do know your opinions can be surprising and interesting and thought-provoking. I could give many uncharitable rants. I’m excellent at ranting.
I totally engage in black and white thinking. I just don’t think it’s the best or most accurate path, for individuals or for movements.