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Christine from the Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.

From Foot Massagers to the Family Monitor

By Rachel Asher | Planet Waves

If I'm turned on by watching women in forcefully subordinate positions, is that feminist? We tend to leave this question open, and dance around our darkest sexual desires in conscious life, leaving them to be played out by porn actors; the janitors of the unconscious. 

I'VE LOOKED FOR sexual stimulation from outside sources since I had my first orgasm at 12, when my best friend ventured down to my vagina and didn't come up for two hours. I've been chasing that orgasm ever since; first, from a foot massager I got as a present for Chanukah and, soon after that, I was on the family computer printing off erotic writing surreptitiously. I would scurry up to my bedroom with five pages at a time, nervous, flushed and excited to read the new stories, hoping I caught a good one with the limited time I had to scan it on the screen.

There was one story in particular that I kept crumbled between the wall and the frame of my metal trundle bed. It was about a girl who went out in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes from the 7-Eleven across the street. It was pouring rain, and all she had on was a long white tank top, which soon became sheer, leaving her the sole participant in the parking lot's wet t-shirt contest. Out of the shadows, five men appeared and took their turns with her, touching her and jerking off and fucking her.  I loved this story, and would remember every so often that it was there, pull it out and read those last few sentences: the culmination of the gang bang, over and over again until I climaxed.

This all occurred before I had my own computer and discovered video, before I really knew what feminism was and how much it would complicate and enrich my life in the future, before I knew I was gay. I was just a happy, porn reading, vibrator-using, masturbating adolescent. Then feminist politics came along and started teasing me, turning my seemingly innocent masturbation tools around. At first it was just a slight jolt, like the spinning teacups at the county fair. But feminism has a way of reconfiguring things, questioning the power inherent in every aspect of our lives in a wonderfully challenging and frustrating way; and eventually, I was on a ride that more closely resembled the Batman rollercoaster. 

As Betty Dodson outlined so well in "Fucking Like a Feminist," the feminist movement has a reputation for being anti-patriarchy, anti-sex and, therefore, anti-porn.  To an extent, it's true: we have been quoted with some real gems, such as the now infamous statement: "all sex is rape." Both Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have been thanked for this one, though the actual statement made by Dworkin went more like this:

Penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. But I'm not saying that sex must be rape. What I think is that sex must not put women in a subordinate position. It must be reciprocal and not an act of aggression from a man looking only to satisfy himself. That's my point.

While this statement has some problems, and I'll get to those in a minute, the actual Dworkin quote is more of a plea for equality between the sheets than an attack on heterosexual penetrative intercourse. She's not saying that all straight sex is rape, she's saying that women have as much right to loving, caring, sexual pleasure as a man does: balance and precise equality are particularly important in the bedroom, according to Dworkin. So this statement is fine then, as long as we're not turned on by power play in the bedroom, and set the timer properly so each person can enjoy their allotted time on top.

As someone with an affinity for handcuffs (which I have to credit my first girlfriend for -- J.B., if you're reading this, thank you), equal and fair participation in the bedroom is not, usually anyway, what gets me off. (I hope I don't have to add that 69-ing is a MAJOR exception to this rule.)

The problem with feminism's approach to sex continues on from here; I've had conversations with fellow feminists that have ended in tears. One of my closest friends walked out on me mid-drink after I told her I was considering being a dominatrix. At the time, I was unemployed for close to six months after finishing a Masters in Gender and Women's Studies: my friend got so upset because she believes that all sex work inherently links back to sex trafficking and child prostitution, a theory commonly touted by feminists who are anti-pornography.

I've read feminist articles that have completely bashed butch-femme roles for imitating everything that's wrong with patriarchal culture. And, to get back to Andrea Dworkin, Women Against Pornography is the primary organization responsible for bringing anti-prostitution politics to the feminist movement, for exaggerating the presence of violence against women in pornographic films and for providing the link between sex trafficking and pornography. 

But, while we can hate anti-pornography feminists all we want for wrecking our blissful ignorance; without Women Against Pornography, there would be no acknowledgement of women who are in the sex industry by force, who are victims of violence, sex trafficking or drug addiction. So while WAP is guilty of tarring the entire sex industry with the same brush, they've also saved some women from more dangerous positions, simply by introducing them to the public awareness. And, more importantly, they've forced porn viewers to turn the objects of their one-handed desires into living, breathing subjects.

While I'm sure everyone reading this agrees that women, men and transfolk should not be coerced or abused via their involvement in the sex industry, there is a bit more to this discussion than that. As we know, the industry exists for its customers; this is where the issues become complicated, because while it's generally accepted that there's a time and a place for soft-core porn with cheesy music and a storyline, there's also, for many of us out there, a darker corner where other fantasies exist.

Laura Mulvey is someone who I love to use for discussions like this. Her famous piece, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", refers to the quality of female actors' "to-be-looked-at-ness;" she said that women were always in passive roles, and found that women in Hollywood cinema in the 1950s and 60s were categorized as innocent madonnas (think of any Doris Day role) or whores (Marilyn Monroe). She also took theories from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, saying that the dark movie theater mimics our experience as infants, looking into our mother's eyes (the screen) and seeing our own reflection. The actors on screen are so pleasurable to watch because we orient ourselves, in some way, with the characters.

So, let's take Mulvey's ideas for what they're worth, and place it in the context of pornography and feminism. If I'm turned on by watching women in forcefully subordinate positions, is that feminist? We tend to leave this question open, and dance around our darkest sexual desires in conscious life, leaving them to be played out by porn actors; the janitors of the unconscious.

Viewers of porn are removed from the production process: there's no way to know how the actors feel; whether they're happy participants, were happy at the time and now feel shame or regret, or, worst case scenario, if they were miserable at the time. This is where I think feminism comes into play, at the moment when we choose to engage or evade concern for the people involved during our pursuit of orgasm.

At the same time, though, it's hard enough for women to take hold of their own desires in this society; the last thing we need is another hang up, another unanswerable question preventing us from experiencing sexual freedom. We're already scared of our desires, scared to admit we masturbate, scared to talk about pornography.

Perhaps Betty Dodson is right; maybe it is time for feminists to be "for something instead of always against something." Instead of focusing our concern on the conditions of actors, we should put our money where our mouths are, and purchase more pornography from people-friendly companies. There is a sex-positive feminist culture out there selling toys, videos and books in female and queer friendly stores like Toys in Babeland and Good Vibrations. For title suggestions, the winners of the Good for Her Feminist Porn Awards are a great place to start (and no, it's not all long kisses and soft lighting).

After all, feminism is much more complicated than mainstream media portrays it. The Third Wave -- my generation of feminism -- is led by sex workers like Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright, who inject porn with a healthy does of humanity; truly bringing it to the level of erotica, trans and class warriors Leslie Feinberg, Pat Califia and Dorothy Allison and queer revolutionaries Michael Warner and Judith Butler.

This generation's message, particularly regarding sexuality, is all about embracing diversity. With these feminists at the forefront, we can rest assured that there are sexy, safe and secure places to play out every sexual fantasy. All we need is the desire to look and the confidence to know something better is out there.


Pornography as the Mirror of Denial by Eric Francis

Fucking Like a Feminist by Betty Dodson