Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Either way, you're behaving badly.

Some people have aske4d me what criticisms anti-SM feminists have of female dominance and male submission. I've talked about this before, but just to give another data point, here is Rebecca Whisnant giving a presentation um... last year, I think?

The comments on dominant women and submissive men are around 24:30 or so.

If anyone could transcribe them, I'd be very grateful.

I’ll discuss just one more defining element of second-wave radical feminism here: namely, the notion of sexual politics. In the English language, the word “sex” is ambiguous: there’s sex in the sense of male and female, and also in the sense of sexuality. Second wave feminism named “sex” in both senses as an arena of politics, that is, an arena in which power is exercised. In short, patriarchy makes sex (as male/female) into an unjust power hierarchy, which then manifests itself in many mutually reinforcing ways, including in and through sex (as sexuality). Whatever supports and maintains that power hierarchy is, from a second-wave point of view, problematic and wrong. If this includes, as it is almost sure to, certain ways of understanding and practicing sex (as sexuality), then these understandings and practices should be resisted and transformed. Furthermore, in second-wave thinking, challenging the sex-based power hierarchy itself requires challenging the very definitions of manhood and womanhood, of masculinity and femininity, on which it it is premised: namely, masculinity as dominance and aggression, femininity as submission. These roles themselves are taken to be problematic, not just their coercive association with biological males and females respectively. Thus, on this view, for a woman to be sexually dominant (or a man submissive) does not constitute liberation, nor do instances of same necessarily count as resistance.

Now the third wave also has a take on sexual politics, that is, on the connections between power, sex as male and female, and sex as sexuality. They too believe that the power hierarchy placing men above women is unjust, but they have different ideas about what counts as challenging that hierarchy, particularly as it is expressed in sex-as-sexuality. On this view, for instance, a woman challenges the hierarchy when she plays a dominatrix role, or when she becomes a sexual consumer (for instance, using pornography or getting a lap dance at a strip club)—that is, when she adopts a standardly masculine set of sexual roles and activities. A woman also resists, on this view, when she uses the “power” of femininity—her beauty, her sex appeal and hotness, etc.—to her own perceived advantage. According to third-wave feminism, then, a woman can enact a liberatory and feminist sexual politics by adopting either a typically feminine or a typically masculine sexual role and persona, and running with it—as long as she does so freely and with the right attitudes and intentions.

....Some claims made on behalf of purportedly-feminist pornography sound reasonable enough as far as they go—for instance, that by making and/or consuming pornography one asserts that it’s OK for women to be sexual and to want sex, that women are not merely passive recipients of male sexual desire, but have sexual desires of our own. Furthermore, in “alt” or feminist pornography we do occasionally see women with something other than the Hollywood-prescribed body size and shape. (More often, the “alternative” appearance seems to consist mainly of tattoos and body piercings—but rarely does it involve having pubic hair, I’ve noticed.) But when we look at the statements of self-described feminist pornographers, the utterly liberal—even libertarian—politics at the core of this enterprise become unmistakeable. At bottom, as it turns out, this pornography is said to be feminist because it is made by women, who are freely choosing to make it. For instance, Joanna Angel, a self-described feminist pornographer, has said that “you could do a porn where a girl is getting choked and hit and spit on, the guy’s calling her a dirty slut and stuff and . . . that can still be feminist as long as everybody there is in control of what they're doing.”12 (Remember: it’s not what you’re doing, but whether you’re doing it freely!)

Also clearly in evidence here is the idea that women can enact a liberatory sexual politics by embracing either standardly feminine or standardly masculine sexual roles and activities. Without an overriding critique of sexualized dominance, the perfectly reasonable claim that it’s OK for women to want and seek sexual satisfaction shades easily into claiming women’s right to be sexual dominators and consumers. And of course, at the core of the “feminist pornography” enterprise is the idea that women can and should redefine the feminized, pornographized sexual-object role as, itself, a form of power. (Again, when is it power? . . . when we freely choose it!) Thus it is that prominently featured on the website of “feminist pornographer” Nina Hartley is a new film entitled “O: The Power of Submission.”13 Perusing Hartley’s list of favorite links, one finds a site called Slave Next Door, which carries the tagline “real sexual slavery.” The portal page of this website reads, in part, “Slave Next Door is the graphic depiction of a female sex slave’s life and training for sexual slavery. It contains extreme bdsm situations and . . . sadistic training.” In clicking to enter the site, one is told , one affirms that one is “not here in the capacity of law enforcement or religious activist.”14


Anonymous said...

The text of the talk is available online, at

Trinity said...

Thanks, SDE.

Anonymous said...

There are some feminist writers who critique pornography but are intellectually interesting and compelling, at least some of the time (Susan Griffin comes to mind). That speech you link to and transcribe above, however, doesn't even really contain arguments. She basically just says things with the expectation/assumption that we'll find them bad (ie. the description of the sex slave video). It's just really crude moralism. How can people fall for that racket?

Anti-porn/anti-kink feminism is a really bad tape, looped adnaseum. I wish their ideology and actions weren't so harmful, so we could just laugh at them. Alas, their complicity with state and religious repression makes them a threat in more than just the realm of ideas. (Then Guattari screams in my ear - the ideology is not important, look at the organization of power!)

ΑλφαΚαπαΒητα said...

Hmmm,I am wondering if all those anti-pornography/anti-bdsm feminists have something sexually different to propose. And I think the answer is nothing. They just dont like some erotic practices and dont want any other man or woman to practise them. For me this has nothing to do with liberation,this is just another erotic orthodoxy. Every orthodoxy does not respect individual aytonomy.

thene said...

I think women do have the right to be sexual dominators (consensually, yes) and consumers (legally, consensually, yes). I think saying otherwise is putting women on some sort of madonna pedestal.

I'm confused as to why Whisnant sees no possible readings beyond 'traditional masculine' or 'traditional feminine' sexuality, especially in the age of queer theory, where we tend to speak of acts rather than identities. (and does she have her head stuck in EveryoneIsHetero-Land, or what?)

anon - I'm reminded of Cheryl Whatsit Whatsit proclaiming that China's restrictions on internet porn must be a good thing that had been done to protect women, because the Chinese lawmakers weren't driven by American religious fundamentalism. WHAT.

ΑλφαΚαπαΒητα - I've noticed that pretty consistently in such writings. They're claiming to be radical, to be solving problems at 'the roots', but they seem unable to discuss lust, desires, and in some cases even human anatomy, in an open and direct way.

Trinity said...

Hi Thene!

"I'm confused as to why Whisnant sees no possible readings beyond 'traditional masculine' or 'traditional feminine' sexuality, especially in the age of queer theory, where we tend to speak of acts rather than identities. (and does she have her head stuck in EveryoneIsHetero-Land, or what?)"

I notice some people tending to think that "queer theory" is just something trendy, vapid, and meaningless, though.


Trinity said...

"Hmmm,I am wondering if all those anti-pornography/anti-bdsm feminists have something sexually different to propose. And I think the answer is nothing."

That's what I find, too. People talk a lot about restrictions, about what gives people the wrong idea, but go curiously silent when you ask them what an affirming sexuality actually IS.

Other than to assert that it Actually Is Out There, They Swear, Really For Real.

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