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Fifty Shades of Pro-Orgasm

fifty-shades-of-grey-1Some worry that the deluge of male dominance/female submission imagery in our culture helps to make sexism seem sexy, encourages women to crave their own submission and abuse, and spurs some men to abuse women.

Others are less concerned. Specifically regarding the Fifty Shades series one of my students — a fan — says,

To those feminists who are bashing the book and those of us who read it: Give us more credit! Women are not that easily influenced by a piece of poorly written fiction. At least not the women I know.

Or this from Feministing:

I’m not perplexed by (the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey). And I am in no way appalled. I am fully in support of anyone doing whatever (safe, consensual) thing that they want to do to get themselves off. Feminists for Orgasms.

Feminists for Orgasms. Pro-choice feminists. Feminists who think women have more sense than to be so easily swayed by a pornified culture that sexualizes male dominance.

And anyway, since male domination is rather of off-limits for feminists, that makes it that much more forbidden and O-inducing, right? Katie Roiphe, whose Newsweek piece on “Shades” was widely panned, has a point when she says,

What is interesting is that this material still, in our jaded porn-saturated age, manages to be titillating or controversial or newsworthy. We still seem to want to debate or interrogate or voyeuristically absorb scenes of extreme sexual submission. Even though we are, at this point, familiar with sadomasochism, it still seems to strike the culture as new, as shocking, as overturning certain values, because something in it still feels, to a surprisingly large segment of our tolerant post-sexual-revolution world, wrong or shameful.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand sure, women should choose what they want. On the other hand, how much choice do you have when you’ve unconsciously internalized society’s way of seeing? Or, as one of my readers put it,

I find this post (on women learning to like torture) extremely frustrating because it points out an issue that bothers me so much. I have always struggled with the fact that morally (and in general) I am completely disgusted by degrading and torturing women, but when it comes to sexual fantasies, I feel completely differently. I think that this is a serious problem and needs to be addressed by my and the coming generations. I think it is perfectly fine to enjoy D/s if that’s what you’re into, however I do not think it should be subconsciously shoved into the minds of every girl growing up in our society.

And while many believe that we aren’t affected by our culture and the messages around us, we do seem to be. Sales go up for products that are advertised. Why else would companies spend mega-millions on a 30-second Super Bowl ad?

Or, a post from Feministing reads:

I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.

And actually, “dominating men” is one of the few ways that men in our culture are eroticized at all.

Meanwhile, nearly 80% of young women have poor body image and can get distracted from sex by worries over what their bodies look like. The whole dominance/submission thing could help young women to get away from that focus and get into the sexy happenings they are engaged in.

Still, I don’t care to see abuse eroticized, whether based on gender or ethnicity. Or whether the target is children or animals. And I will continue to work against it.

But eroticized abuse is what we’ve got. And many women, including many feminists, find it arousing.

So I’ve given this a lot of thought.

While people do unconsciously internalize the messages of their society, we can also become conscious of them, which makes choice more possible. We may then choose to overcome the messages or, alternatively, compartmentalize them.

So, a woman could live an egalitarian and empowered life while keeping submission fantasies confined to the bedroom in order to neutralize the potential harm that comes from feeling — and becoming  — “lesser than.”  She could also do the BDSM-thing in ways that are not physically harmful.

Many who engage in D/s only do so with partners who respect them as equals and who see these “cut off from reality” moments as play.

Others keep the fantasies in their heads and don’t act them out. As one dominatrix put it,

In many cases people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs and they prefer the fantasy to reality.

If anyone chooses to act out their fantasies I suggest avoiding anything that is actually harmful. Pain exists to warn against whatever is causing it. Those who lack pain receptors die young.

Others protest that some people deal with emotional problems by harming themselves. Like cutting. Again, cutting is not healthy. If you need that sort of release, seeing a therapist to deal with the underlying issue is healthier.

Finally, so that women don’t consistently act in ways that bolster an ideology that encourages them to submit, how about turning it around sometimes? Maybe he’d like to be dominated now and again. Or, maybe you could spend an evening with him serving your every desire.

Now that would be nice.

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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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Shades of Craving Your Own Abuse

imagesI’ve mused over why so many women want Fifty Shades of Grey. Some may crave a brief escape from the power and responsibility of their lives. Others may fetishize their own disempowerment. Random happenings may play a role. And certainly, a media blitz that eroticizes the degradation and torture of women can end up living in women’s own heads.

Some stick to fantasy and role-play. Others come to accept, or even crave, their own abuse.

Alisa Valdes was raised a feminist but eventually learned to submit when she met “the Cowboy.” What began as obedience turned violent, as when he:

dragged me down the hall to the bedroom, bent me over, and took me, telling me as he did so that I must never forget who was in charge.

The violence escalated and she eventually leapt from a moving truck, fearing he would kill her.

Or, I read this on the feminist blog, Jezebel:

“Hit me. Harder. Hard.” …

I slapped her as hard as I could. She made a noise, like crying but also like a hot intake of breath. She nodded. I did it again, a little less hard. I could see her face darkening and didn’t want to leave a mark. My hand stung. I assumed her face hurt more… As we fucked increasingly hard, she made noises I didn’t know. I took them as cues, so I would slap her as hard as I could, as hard as she seemed to want. 

Another woman posted this comment on my blog:

However, as far as the violent sex goes, I will admit being one of those women who enjoys it. 

I also know from experience, however, that violent sex is addicting and only induces more desire for increased violence, which almost became borderline physically dangerous sometimes.

We experience pain for a reason. It is a warning to stop whatever we are doing because it is harming us. People who lack pain receptors die young.

Does this eroticization teach women to crave their own abuse? Almost like a backlash to a movement that teaches men not to abuse and that teaches women they don’t have to take it?

A counterblast to a society that now provides women’s shelters, hot lines and mandatory arrest? Maybe we can get you to crave your own abuse, without complaint?

That’s one of my worries about the Dominance/submission trend, which includes the appeal of Fifty Shades.

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at how sexualizing male dominance keeps male dominance sexy. After that I’ll consider the other side: pro-orgasm feminism that wants women to cum, however they cum.

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Learning to Like Torture in Shades of Grey

Mencontrol7What’s the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey? As I’ve written before, release from power, fetishizing disempowerment, and random happenings may all play a part.

Internalizing a culture that eroticizes the degradation and torture of women surely plays a role, too.

A post from Feministing reads:

I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.

When you are bombarded by images, ideas subconsciously get inside your head. And we are drenched in “male dominance is sexy” imagery.

Dolce-Gabbana-Ad-Sexist[1]Dolce & Gabana has a sexy ad suggesting gang rape. In another, a swimsuit-clad woman lies down as fully clothed men look menacingly down on her.

A Tom Ford eyewear ad seems to say F-you to a woman, in a BJ kind of way.

Fashion ads suggest that black and blue is beautiful.

At Superbowl XXXVIII Justin Timberlake slapped Janet Jackson around before ripping off her bodice.

Rhett Butler “takes” Scarlett in an act of marital rape – and she awakens sexually satisfied in the morning. Luke rapes Laura on “General Hospital” — and they fall in love.

secretaryLaw & Order: Special Victims Unit invites us to indulge in the rape, battering and torture of sex victims — usually women.

Meanwhile, The Secretary indulges in a little D/s on the side.

Or go to the ballet and watch a man overtake a woman in “Petite Mort” or “little death” (in idiom: orgasm).

On the music scene sexy women are routinely debased as bitches and ho’s while Eminem chants “I’m in flight high of a love drunk from the hate” while Rihanna submits saying, “I like the way it hurts” — and periodically returns to a lover who beat her.

Women are also watching more porn these days. Now showing: violence and degradation of women. Watching, they increasingly find it all arousing.

On the High Court Justice Breyer asks why thirteen-year-olds are protected from Playboy while video games that let boys bind, torture and kill a woman are just fine – so long as the she’s not topless.

2010-05SmuinPetitMort-GoodmanAs a kid I checked out Grimm’s Fairy Tales at the library only to read a tale about a woman who was punished by being stripped and driven through the town in humiliation as sharp spikes pierced her skin. Another childhood memory emerges of a woman being thrown over a man’s knee to be spanked on TV.

When young girls are steeped in these sexy images, is it any surprise that they come to see male domination and violence as sexy, themselves?

So really, it is no surprise that so many women are enthralled by the domination and submission of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ll talk more on what I make of all this later.

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Why Women Want Shades of Grey

fifty-shades-of-grey-cac1d39d5bb5c20810b1314bcbf61dee35d8219b-s6-c10Okay, not all women like Fifty Shades of Grey, the story of Anastasia Steele who becomes aroused by submission in her love for Christian Grey. But plenty of women have made the book a bestseller.

What’s the appeal?

The best-known guess comes from Katie Roiphe who believes women crave submission in the bedroom as relief from their newfound burden of equality, power and free will, as though they just can’t handle it:

In “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s character finds herself for a moment lying on a gynecologist’s table perversely fantasizing about having AIDS because it would free her from ambition, from responsibility, from the daunting need to make something of her life… which raises the question: is there something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman’s life… about all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world?

Roiphe’s theory has been thoroughly panned. After all, plenty of powerful men like a little dominatrix sex play to gain relief from their relentless responsibilities, too. So some men and some women may want both power and a break from it.

Mistress Shae Flanigan and Olivia Severine are dominatrices who say that most of their clients are “very high-powered” men. Says Severine,

They came to see me as a brief escape when no one was looking at them for direction or leadership. The time with me is when they were told what to do, what to feel and how to act … and all the weight of their careers, families, lives, is lifted from them for a cherished few hours.

Lena Dunham’s hard-driven “Girls” character also seems to want both power and relief.

On the other hand, dominatrices also talk of clients who fetishize their disempowerment, whether it comes from a history of child abuse, racism or poverty. That goes directly against Roiphe’s theory. There are plenty of powerless women out there who could be doing that, too.

Regardless, Tracy Clark-Flory, over at Salon points out that this fetish needn’t mean a woman wants to be disempowered in real life. Surely, a black man who eroticizes racism doesn’t want a return to the pre-Civil Rights era. What we want in fantasy is not necessarily what we crave in the real world.

Others point out that submission fantasies may not have a clear cause. A dominatrix who calls herself Midnight says:

As a child, I got told off for hitting a man in the crotch with my stuffed penguin and now I love hurting balls. Go figure.

Humans are complex and varied, but whether submission fantasies are motivated by relief from power or from fetishized disempowerment or from some other source, it is Anastasia who is disempowered here, not the reader.

Next time I’ll look at how socialization may spark the allure of Fifty Shades of Grey. Later, I’ll have thoughts on what to make of it all.

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