Both “Women Against Feminism” and certain young feminist women often claim that feminism requires you to refuse to be sexy or interested in physical beauty. “F*ck the male gaze,” say the young feminists. “I like it when men compliment me,” say the Women Against Feminism.
Feminism is about equal rights and empowerment. And if we want to be sexy, that’s our right.
Many an Internet meme has insisted that feminists are simply “ugly chicks who can’t get laid.” I think Emma Watson and countless other feminists prove that theorem wrong. Still, there is dissent within the ranks, as indicated when Emma Watson posed scantily clad on the cover of Vanity Fair. Some feminists couldn’t believe that Watson would “degrade herself in that way.” And sadly, many feminists also have a problem with me, for my submittal to the male gaze.
I am an ecdysiast, performance artist, and aerial dancer, all of which involve sexy performance while scantily clad. But I enjoy being sexy for everyone, not just men, and I don’t believe that my activism for reproductive rights or equal pay is diluted just because I’ve taken my clothes off in front of strangers.
I’m especially disappointed to hear shame assigned to those in the sex work and risqué entertainment industries coming from other women. Slut-shaming in everyday life has crystallized into a unilateral workforce distinction of “us vs. them.” “Working women” are legitimate, deserving of equal pay to men and career advancement. “Working girls” are illegitimate, not even women.
Stripping and hooking are considered the “rock bottom” that single women, especially mothers, will reach if they live outside of social norms. Popular media helps these ideas by portraying strippers and prostitutes as women who experienced great personal trauma or socioeconomic distress that placed them in those roles, or by suggesting that their redemption is tied to their “escape” from the industry.
I don’t believe that my activism for reproductive rights or equal pay is diluted just because I’ve taken my clothes off in front of strangers.
Certainly, there are many instances of women being forced into the sex trade or being mistreated by their employers. I’ve seen many a feminist cite those incidents of violence as a reason to shut down all sex work. We call them SWERFs, or “sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminists.” I strongly disagree that sex work is unequivocally bad, and moreover, I believe that we need to destigmatize sex in order to achieve gender equality.
Recently, some charming gentleman left a response on my plea for women to stop slut-shaming themselves. He smugly told me that pimps would agree with my piece. I guess he thought I would be offended, but honestly, I am all for legal sex work in which “pimps” are replaced by supportive managers.
Anthropologist Gayle Rubin has noted that sex and gender are separate and unequal, but part of a system through which people construct the biological aspect of sexuality into either artifacts or venues of human sexual needs. So women, by virtue of being women, are arbitrarily assigned roles related to sex. Their profession provides the “light switch” for others to divide them: sexy for their husband and motherly for their children, or sexy without raising children or supporting a male, which equates to “slut.” Anyone who crosses this boundary makes both SWERFs and non-feminists sweat.
It’s important to note that the exchange of money or goods for sexual interaction or stimulation occurs in a number of situations that are not prostitution or risque entertainment. For example, both men and women may sell images of themselves to sex chat websites, perform in pornographic or risque videos — even for private use — or participate in photo shoots for magazines or websites geared toward this purpose. Where do we draw a line between sexiness and smuttiness? Is it necessary to even draw that line?
I would also note that sex is definitely a factor in “sugar daddy or mama” relationships, and honestly, in the dating sphere. While you might protest that you “don’t date people for their money,” let’s face it, you expect gifts, sexual attention, or both, from people you’re dating, no matter your gender.
Women are expected to confine their open sexuality to socially acceptable situations such as parties. The situations in which they “break free” must be in post-feminist affirmations of independence and equality, or else they are truly “slutty.” Sexy dance must be done in apparently “empowering” situations.
Where do we draw a line between sexiness and smuttiness? Is it necessary to even draw that line?
To both Women against Feminism and SWERFs, burlesque and stripping are “not empowering.” They’re either “degrading” or “submitting to the male gaze.” Either way, these assessments strip agency from women who exchange their sexuality for something else. We’re upholding the patriarchy when we reduce our sexuality to something for male pleasure, but we’re also doing so when we say that women’s sexuality must only be performed within narrow societal confines.
As someone who has found both burlesque and circus immensely empowering in my recovery from sexual abuse, I find it immensely insulting when someone says that I’ve been “duped” or “brainwashed” into some sort of conspiracy of sexiness. It is my body and I will do with it as I please. I want to reclaim my sexuality after it was stolen from me. I am a dancer with strong legs and abs, and I want to celebrate those attributes.
As a feminist, I encourage everyone to express themselves in healthy ways, even if that involves sexiness. I fully support sex workers, camgirls (and camboys!), ecdysiasts, models, and everyone else who uses their sexuality as a means of obtaining something in this world, and I fully believe that you can support equal rights and dismantle the patriarchy while you do it.