Is empowerment through sexuality a myth? I recently had an argument with my mother about pole dancing. I feel like I should preface this article by saying that my mother is almost certainly cooler than yours: nothing against your mum, obviously, I’m sure she’s a lovely person with many redeeming features, it’s just that mine happens to be particularly exceptional. She’s also the kind of person with whom I occasionally have drunken midnight arguments about pole dancing.

image-040716.jpg.0e75e4f253494efd7b2f3d2

 

Empowerment through sexuality? Or is it..


“Inexcusable man-pleasing”, she said.

“They’re athletes!” I said. “It’s massively difficult and impressive; just look at the strength you’d need to do that, not to mention the skill.”

“Why would any woman want to devote that much time and energy to something so deeply embroiled in the patriarchy?” she asked.

“Because fighting the patriarchy is about being able to choose your own actions” I pointed out, “not about having your choices limited by a different set of oppressive rules.”

My mother was unconvinced. “Those women are collaborating in their own oppression”, she said. “Is it even possible to make a genuinely free choice to do something that panders to men like that, in the society we live in?”

And that’s the million-dollar question, really, isn’t it? If socialisation is effectively brainwashing, it’s entirely possible that none of our choices are truly free. This is what Andrea Dworkin was really trying to say with her oft-misinterpreted assertion that “violation is a synonym for intercourse”: not that all men are inherently rapists, but that all women are so systematically disempowered as to make many of our choices almost meaningless. It’s also part of the point I was trying to make with my Fetish.com article last summer about sex-critical feminist submission.

 

The patriarchy Is coming from inside the house


You remember that creepy bit in cult horror film When a Stranger Rings, right? The main character has been getting weird phone calls from an unidentified stalker, and the police tell her that if she can keep him on the line for long enough they’ll be able to trace him. What they tell her after she does so is horrifying enough to have become one of the most famous lines in cinematic history: “Jill,” says Officer Burroughs, his voice filled with trepidation. “We’ve just traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.”

There’s no denying that our brains are a bit like that. None of our decisions are made in a vacuum, and no matter how much time we spend justifying our choices to ourselves it would be disingenuous of us to deny that they’re influenced by a variety of external factors. It’s entirely true that I shave my legs because I prefer the way they look and feel when I do; it’s entirely true also that I might very well not think that if I’d grown up away from societal pressure to do it anyway.

 

What we talk about when we talk about empowerment through sexuality


What does ‘empowerment through sexuality’ mean, anyway? Can we reclaim some agency over our own sexualities if we exploit the male gaze to our own ends? Who really holds the power in the transaction between a stripper and her audience - and what does it mean that the answer to that is almost certainly ‘the (generally male) person who owns the club’?

Now, I’m no Andrea Dworkin, and I don’t claim to have any of the answers. It seems clear to me, though, that an important part of freedom is choice: this is why I’m a socialist rather than a communist, after all.

There’s no denying that a lot of women gain a sense of empowerment from being open about their sexuality - something that, until recently, it was quite hard for most of us to do freely and safely. Our own Kayla Lords

recently wrote about this too.


It’s worth bearing in mind that there’s more to it than can be seen on the surface, though. I might not agree with my mother about pole dancing (you can’t tell me that this video is not a thing of beauty), but I can take from her argument the point that we risk missing something important if we look at these issues in too simplistic a way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCRP-5om_3Y

Abi is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write

 


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