Both “Women Against Feminism” and certain young feminist women have recently claimed that feminism entails a refusal to be sexy or interested in physical beauty, to please or appreciate men, or to be defined as “female.” The matter of whether or not these people think feminism is “good” hinges on their assessment of any of these things. Unfortunately, while “feminism” can be political, interpersonal, and emotional to any extreme, these discussions leave out academic feminism from the discussion. In other words, any analysis of why people do the things they do, with regard to the gender, sexuality, and behavior associated with “female,” has an entirely different thing to say.
Both academic feminists and activists note that gender and biological sex are not one and the same. What activists often leave out of the discussion are any aspects of socialization of women (of aesthetic or behavioral standards) that don’t connect to the construction of the white, straight woman. In other words, everyone who is not, is perceived as a counterpoint to the mainstream image of femininity. Rather than being truly feminist in the sense of pursuing equality, this way of viewing gender makes everyone “wrong” unless they adopt a specifically “modern” stance, usually by adopting certain modern behaviors that essentially reclaim traditional Western models of gender. One vital example is how women who embrace sexual liberation in a way that does not connect to “family values” are shamed.
The shame assigned to those in the sex work and risqué entertainment industries seems to be largely from other women. Slut-shaming in everyday life is crystallized into a unilateral workforce distinction of “us vs. them” when women assess their economic role. Stripping or hooking are considered the “rock bottom” at which single women, especially mothers, will fall if they live outside of social norms. Popular media helps these ideas by portraying stripper and prostitute characters as those who experienced great personal trauma or socioeconomic distress that placed them in those roles, or by showing their redemption by their escape by the industry. Certainly there are many instances of women being forced into the sex trade, or being mistreated by their employers. This essay is not about those incidents of violence, but how the popular narrative about sex work seems to find violence to be inevitable.
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 sexuality into artifacts or venues of human sexual needs. This means that because women, by virtue of being women, are assigned roles related to sex arbitrarily, their profession provides the “light switch” for others to divide them: sexy and motherly for their husband, or sexy without raising children or supporting a male, which equates to “slut.” 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, or participate in photo shoots for magazines or websites geared toward this purpose. The assessment of how “low” these activities are, seems to be linked to the level of contact with the consumer or others as necessary to produce the entertainment, from photos or videos that are shipped out, to contact with a work associate for the purposes of others’ consumption, to indirect contact with the consumer, to, finally, direct contact with the consumer.
It’s also notable that socially mediated exchanges of money occur in other distinctive situations, such as “sugar daddy or mama” relationships, or even in the dating world. While some might protest that they don’t date people for their money, it’s nonetheless true that dating carries expectations of gifts early on, and of shared financial burden later in the relationship.
Secondly, as has happened throughout history, at the right time and place, people can “break free from” or even switch their normative sexual roles and/or gender, in festivals, revelry, theatre, or rituals. Even then, the lines are fine, and can change in an instant based on the nuances of the situation. For example, it is acceptable and even expected in most parts of the U.S. for women to wear shorter and tighter clothes at night, and to dance in sexually provocative ways. I have heard many women playfully call each other “slut” or “whore” at such places, as though to remind each other just how fine the lines are. And then both law enforcement and the public at large are quick to cite the attire, dancing, and venue when women are raped at any point in time close.
Women are expected to regulate their sexuality to such temporary moments. The terms under which they “break free” must be in post-feminist affirmations of independence and equality, or they are truly “slutty.” Dance must be done in apparently “empowering” situations. For this reason, burlesque dancers who restrict their sexuality…overtly by wearing pasties and selecting particularly theatrical forms of movement, tacitly by refusing touch with consumers…are generally more accepted than strippers. Of course, some feminist activists object to the art form, noting that since female dancers are titillating male viewers in a public space, they are reducing femininity to visual pleasure for men. This argument ignores the significant female audience for burlesque as opposed to the significantly male audience for strip clubs, which are marketed towards men and shape the dancers accordingly. Either way, many women choose either profession, and enjoy the performance aspect as well as the monetary benefits.
As for prostitutes, the same argument holds true. In a post-feminist world, why shouldn’t women have the freedom to choose their profession? Why is exhibited sexuality a sign of weakness, violence, or being “non-feminist,” when history has shown us a variety of forms of performative sexuality, and to challenge the familial role of women is to be somehow succumbed to the male gaze? Let’s not restrict body empowerment to club dancing or private bedrooms, and protect the rights of women to choose their profession…even if it is to titillate others.