Pleasure, Pain and Patriarchal Power: Could there be a great big elephant in the (bed)room?

Firting to Hurting
Photo credit: hiveminer.com

One of the books that I’m reading at the moment is a collection of essays titled Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary feminist issues. Featuring 17 short essays written by academics from across the globe, it’s the kind of book that you can dip in and out of and feel that you’ve learned something important from each time that you do. Over the weekend I delved into Laura Tarzia’s chapter on sexuality, which I’d been looking forward to since my last engagement with the book a couple of weeks ago. Focused on the complex relationship between sexual violence against women and female sexual desire, Tarzia’s chapter raises far more questions than it can possibly answer in a mere nine pages.

And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

When discussing the relationship between female sexual pleasure and violence in the past I’ve found myself feeling worried that challenging the healthiness of desires that exist outside of my personal experience will lead me to come across as prudish, ignorant, and judgemental of others; or worse, non-feminist. After reading more about it, though, I’ve realised that my concerns aren’t as naive or misplaced as I feared. As Tarzia states, there is a disparity between liberal feminism’s ongoing fight to eradicate sexual violence against women, and its acceptance of degrading sexual practices and experiences as long as they are ‘chosen’ and not unwillingly imposed. This is, of course, an incredibly complex subject to broach. But I strongly believe that it deserves our attention.

The idea that degrading sexual or sex-related experiences can be consented to by women within a patriarchal society is, without doubt, highly paradoxical. The notion of consent discussed in this context is something that can be further explored when considered in relation to the glamour and porn industries. During a discussion a few years ago about the proposed discontinuation of Page 3 in The Sun newspaper, my partner at the time argued that because the women had chosen to become glamour models their portrayal in the feature wasn’t sexist or degrading. Scrapping Page 3 altogether, he suggested, would pose worrying censorship issues for our publishing industry.

It’s hard to ignore the possibility that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence.

This is an argument that we also often hear in regard to the porn industry and any so called ‘choices’ that women make about their bodies. What my partner at the time and others who make this argument fail to perceive is the blurry distinction that exists between the accepted and normalised objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies (which some of us do sometimes willingly participate in), and freedom of expression within the media. On average, the annual wage that a Page 3 model was able to earn was not only extremely unstable (ranging from £12000 for beginners to £1M for the very successful), but incredibly modest in comparison to the huge annual profits that were and still are raked in by The Sun.

I have personally always been more interested in the reasons behind the choices that women make about their bodies than the fact that they have been granted the freedom to ‘choose’ in the first place. When we consider the immense power that traditional gender ideals have historically had over women’s lives in both the public and private spheres, it’s hard to ignore the possibility, as Tarzia highlights, that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence. Whether or not a potentially degrading sexual or sex-related experience has been chosen, in a society founded on masculine ideology, the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

In terms of consensual violence against women, BDSM and other such sexual sub-cultures are vital to consider. Existing across gender distinctions and binaries, these sexual practices facilitate the sexual subordination and dominance of both women and men alike. So as well as there being women who desire sexual violence to be inflicted upon them, there are also those who prefer to inflict pain upon their partners. There are also, of course, men within the BDSM and fetish community who desire to be sexually dominated by women, either because they seek to express characteristics that are discouraged in their professional and domestic lives, or because they enjoy seeing women who are routinely disempowered in society take on a different ‘role,’ so to speak. What is evident in all of this is that our sexual preferences and transgressions can be reflective of the power dynamics that are at play within both our public and private lives.

In a society founded on masculine ideology, the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

Considering also the performative aspect of traditional gender distinctions (within which men play the dominant role), and how this relates to perceptions of power in society, our sexual fantasies and behaviours come to represent far more than simply a gateway to pleasure. In a society which both reveres and rewards men who display (or perform) behaviours that are considered ‘masculine,’ such as sexual prowess, aggression and dominance, it’s possible to see how women (traditionally perceived as less powerful) may be conditioned to both encourage and feel attracted to male violence.

Across the globe women are accustomed to seeing other women’s bodies publicly exploited and degraded on a regular basis. And whether it be through magazines, TV shows, films or pornography, we are exposed every day to images that mirror a fundamentally masculine notion of sexuality. Bearing this in mind, an important question to ask is whether our exposure to images and behaviours that render women inferior to the sexual ideals inherent within patriarchy has led us to embody and accept as ours sexual fantasies and beliefs that are rooted in misogyny.

I do not by any means pretend to have any clear or definite answers to any of the difficult questions that have been discussed in this article. And I certainly have not intended to cast judgement or shame upon anyone who identifies with the sexual desires and practices alluded to. One thing I am certain of, though, is that as difficult and paradoxical as the notion of consent is when it comes to sexual violence, it is an issue that deserves to be acknowledged and discussed.

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Maddie is a Bristol-based writer and blogger with a particular interest in feminism, social justice and contemporary culture.