Shades of Making Sexism Sexy

Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-Poster-fifty-shades-of-grey-33848285-640-640Do Fifty Shades of Grey, along with the deluge of violent and humiliating images that flood our consciousness, support patriarchy by making male dominance seem sexy?

Some worry that it might.

John Stoltenberg, a feminist activist and scholar, wrote a piece called “Pornography and Freedom,” observing that plenty of porn seems to promote oppression, whether a woman is pictured bound and gagged with her genitals open to the camera or whether lines from a book read, “The man wanted only to abuse and ravish her until she was broken and subservient.”

These sorts of images in both mainstream media and porn are mostly about women submitting to men.

In the eroticization, male dominance can seem sexy, he says.

If it’s sexy, who would want to end it?

A student of mine once asked why we should care about women’s equality when a lot of women (like her?) find male dominance sexy.

Two of my friends told me that they wanted to marry dominant men. One did and eventually divorced him because she didn’t like the reality of it. The other stayed married but had a lot of emotional problems.

I’ve mentioned Alisa Valdes before. She was raised feminist, and was even named one of the top feminist writers by Ms. Magazine. But when she met “the Cowboy,” she “embraced her femininity” and learned to submit: No back-talking; no second-guessing; no sarcastic, smart-ass remarks. She stayed monogamous and ignored her jealousy while Cowboy catted about. Her book, “The Feminist and the Cowboy,” suggests women will live happily ever after in orgasmic bliss if they just submit to controlling, misogynist men. In a recent post I described how her submission turned increasingly violent.

Still, my students often wonder “What’s the big deal?”

But what if the imagery were about race instead of sex? What if blacks nearly always had white lovers in real life, and at the same time nearly all of the “D/s” imagery depicted white domination and sadistic acts inflicted upon blacks? And what if some blacks came to crave submission and their own abuse at the hands of whites?

Would that be healthy?

Of course, once patriarchy sexualizes submission you can turn it around with “the dominatrix” emerging. Yet we are not bombarded with imagery that makes matriarchy sexy. So guys don’t go around wanting to marry dominant females who will boss them around in real life.

But a lot of people don’t want to engage this discussion. Repression and all that.

Prof. Robert Jensen, of the University of Texas, studies porn and says,

When I critique pornography, I am often told to lighten up. Sex is just sex… (but) Pornography offers men a politics of sex and gender – and that politics is patriarchal and reactionary…

There should be nothing surprising about the fact that some pornography includes explicit images of women in pain. But my question is:  Wouldn’t a healthy society want to deal with that? Why aren’t more people, men or women, concerned? …

We should be free to talk about our desire for an egalitarian intimacy and for sexuality that rejects pain and humiliation.

I feel it is important to discuss things that are rarely discussed, and that make distinctions between what is healthy and what is not.

Next time I will turn to the other side of this question, looking at “pro-orgasm” feminists.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on July 8, 2013, in feminism, pornography, psychology, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Sort of sad that someone’s idea of embracing femininity is submission “No back-talking; no second-guessing; no sarcastic, smart-ass remarks.” You can be feminine (whatever that means anyway) and still have an opinion, speak your mind and be in a relationship that is a partnership.
    I found it interesting in this post how you used the idea of race instead of sex being used in domination imagery, really put the point across.
    I think another concern is young teenage boys have access to this kind of dominant pornography from a very young age, right there on their mobile phones, or their mates mobile phones, or on the computer when no one is home. It’s a worry how this might shape their ideas of what relationships and sexual intimacy is like.

    • Yes. I thought it was a very strange way to think of femininity.

      When I talk about this sort of thing with my students they often don’t get it until I switch around and discuss things in terms of race instead of gender. We tend to be a lot more sensitive to racial injustice and sexism. I don’t think that we are more sexist than racist, but people of color get a lot more upset over racism than women do over sexism. That seems to be because people of color have a historical memory of something else (equality in Africa before colonialism, for instance). And racism has never been eroticized and made to seem sexy. Quite the reverse for women and sexism.

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