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Soraya Chemaly

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Virgins, Bondage and A Shameful Media Fail

Posted: 04/20/2012 6:10 pm

Thanks to its recent cover story, The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Sadomasochism is a Feminist Dream, millions of people can thank Newsweek for unfulfilling sex and a cynical undermining of feminism's attempts to change that. Instead of substantively considering the gendered nature of shame in our culture and how e-readers are being used by women to deal with its effects, the magazine perpetuated some pretty dubious and unsubstantiated theories about power, sexuality, gender and yes, feminism. The only trends that surface when considering the work cited in the article are women's use of technology, their openness to overtly sexual content and mainstream media's persistent misrepresentation of both women and the feminist movement.

The article in question, written unsurprisingly by Katie Roiphe, relied largely on the success of the soft-core porn bondage/dominance/sadomasochism (BDSM) series, 50 Shades of Grey, to explain why working women (mis-conflated with feminists) might be uncomfortable with free will. What drivel. Not only is women's consumption of BSDM (in the book or two other referenced media) not a trend, but there is also no connection between the theme of submission/dominance and women's "possible" discomfort with economic successes and power. The series' sales are unexceptional and their content ultimately traditional for the simple reason that the books are about romance in the context of VIRGINITY, SUBMISSION and the transformative power of what filmmaker and writer Therese Shechter calls "the magical penis" which awakens and transforms a woman in these narratives. The deep thread, not to be pulled by Newsweek's predictable trojan horse writer, connecting all of these things is gendered shame. Electronic readers are changing culture in lots of unexpected ways and this is one of them. Feminists aren't grappling with why women have submission fantasies. Women, liberated by feminist ideas about equality on many fronts including, but not limited to shame-free sex, are openly consuming sexual stories that interest them and talking about them to boot.

Sexuality is just one dimension of being human, and sex is probably best when pursued with consent between equals. It's just that misogynistic systems and the people that support them, both men and women, think of women as only here, ultimately, for men's sexual and reproductive use -- female desire, consent and equality being largely irrelevant. Feminists like me are more concerned with the pervasively destructive effects of living in a culture that says women's pleasure and reproduction are only legitimate when they serve the needs of men and shameful when they seek to define them on their own terms. It's subjugation, but not the kind Newsweek is irresponsibly touting.

So, what is striking about the 50 Shades books is that:

  • It is now obvious to everyone that many, many women like consuming sexual content and not just hazy romances,
  • Women are using technology to bypass shame and its effects in several ways and
  • They are talking about both of these things openly.

This is why I am waiting with bated breath to see how Rick Santorum will try to ban e-readers that aren't sanctioned by the Pope.

50 Shades of Grey, and content like it that seems new and trendy because they explicitly feature transgressive sex, are really just contemporary flavors of the romance genre. Here are three key ways:

1) The series features the adventures of a virgin
2) The narrative is one of female submission and male domination
3) They rely, in classic Sleeping Beauty fashion, on the powerful ability of a man to sexually "awaken" a woman without her actual desire being obvious or autonomous. She does what he wants not out of physical desire, but for love.
4) I know I said three, but I can't stop. They also include the younger/"innocent"/girl and the older/damaged/man and wealth and luxury as part of the romance. And, yes, the protagonist in these books is, in some ways, more emotionally engaged and solicitous than traditional romance heros.

When I was 12 I had limited access to books and an insatiable appetite, so to speak, for reading. So I raided my strictly pious, Anglican great aunt's library and over the course of six months, in compulsive fashion, read more than 200 of Barbara Cartland's yummy romance novels. Without fail, these slim volumes, which never exceeded 150 pages, featured innocent virginal girls "locked" (ha!) in embraces with masculine manly men -- you know, the "strapping" (double ha!) kind. These novels were permeated by BSDM language and imagery in which the protagonist were represented, for sublimation and discretion, by or as horses: "skittish" or "spirited" young girls, initiated into romance by stronger, older, richer, powerful men. These men, who invariably smelled of "lustrous" (well-rubbed anyone?) leather and carried exquisitely-described riding crops, were characterized first and foremost by how they handled their "mounts" through the use of said crops, bridles, saddles, boots, brushes and more. The horses the girl and man "rode" were "uncontrollable" and needed "taming." Passion was literally "unbridled." The girl, when she did ride, was special because she could "handle" a "powerful stallion" instead of a meeker horse. There was a lot, a lot of sweat for the man and some perspiration for the girl, for whom the transformation into womanhood happened, post-book, through the waving of the able rider's "magical penis" in a luxurious bed.

In addition to the thinly-veiled dominance and submission language, there were two notable qualities of the protagonists: She was always a virgin and he was always misunderstood and "damaged." Sound familiar? (Barbara Cartland, who was related to Princess Diana, by the way, sold more than 700 MILLION books.) Only hers, which defined the romance category, were written 30-40 years ago and have an easily traced literary genealogy most adequately represented by de Sade's Justine in Western literature and lots more in non-Western traditions. 50 Shades barely scrapes the surface.

"Romance" is a $1.3 billion a year genre, bigger than science fiction, mystery or religion/inspirational categories. There is nothing trendy about it. Needless to say, no one has wondered, because before now, it was legitimately understood to be beyond ridiculous, whether the women reading these books worked or were feminists or comfortable with their equality or lack thereof. There is no more a "renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness" evidenced by the coincidence of these themes with the publication of books like The Richer Sex or The End of Men than there was evidenced by the coincidence of the Marquis de Sade's near simultaneous 18th century publishing of Justine with Mary Wollstoncraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Sexual dominance and submission aren't "trends." Neither is virginity.

There are few things as persistently powerful in our culture as this idea. It is "kept," "protected," "taken," "given away," "defended," "saved." It is bought and sold and "auctioned" to the highest bidder. There are purity balls and purity bears. Virginity is a powerful and malleable concept, as evidenced by the teenagers in Therese Shechter's smart, funny and provoking documentary How to Lose Your Virginity. If you want to do your bit to offset torpid dominant narratives about sexuality and romance like those being perpetuated by media like Newsweak's (intentional), watch this clip and then please go to Kickstarter and support this movie. Take a look (just for fun, since no children will be produced if you do):

What connects these two ideas, submission and virginity, is the question of sexual agency without shame and who has it.

Men have more sexual agency and are freer from sexual shame than women. Not that that makes life easier for them. Not only are they relatively free of the gendered constraints of sexual shame, but they are positively expected to be not only obviously driven by sex but definitively in charge. Like Pat Robertson says "Push forward and your wife will come along." Oops! Silly me, he was talking about family finances.

The salient characteristic of the female protagonist in these stories is not so much powerlessness as whether she is free from SHAME. If you are a woman and you like sex, but sex is "bad," if you like sex, but don't think of yourself as a "bad girl," if you like sex but have gone to school being brainwashed by the slut-shaming, homophobic stereotypes of abstinence-only education, you have a serious conflict problem.

"Being perceived as a woman who "wants it" comes with terrible, dehumanizing social costs," explains Jaclyn Friedman, whose book What You Really Want: The Smart Girl's Guide to Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, is about this subject. "From pervasive slut-shaming to impunity for those who do violence to us. It's only when we have the freedom to be the subject of our own sexuality, rather than the object of men's, that we even have room to know what we desire."

Not only do women have less sexual agency and freedom, but mainstream media continues to to represent them as either not having it or seeking it by confusing sexiness with sexual agency millions of times daily (think about faux lesbianism, for example) but also by generating unsupported retrograde, gender stereotyped narratives about gender, feminism, sex and power (i.e., Newsweek).

Shame is the deep magic that exists under all the pseudo-intellectual pablum peddled by Newsweek. One of technology's many unintended effects might be that e-readers, with their particular privacy and by enabling women to bypass mainstream messaging, may help change all that. Explicit books like 50 Shades really took off when women could read them as invisible digital downloads on e-readers. The trend is not female submission fantasies in the face of equality, it's the obviousness of women's interest in sex, not just fuzzy "romance." Women can "openly," without social opprobrium, read whatever they like on e-readers -- not just stories of virile men "taking" swooning virgins -- but sexually explicit stories of virile men "taking" swooning virgins.

The subversiveness at issue is not sado-masochism, its the fact that women are sharing the books, talking about them, reviewing them in book clubs and using them as instruction manuals. What Brené Brown calls the three "pillars of shame" -- secrecy, silence and judgment -- dissolve in the face of this technology.

What Newsweek failed to acknowledge is that this not secret, not silent, non-judgemental openness is a feminist success. Free will and sexual agency and who gets to be overtly sexual with impunity has deeply personal consequences for both men and women. Openness and freedom from shame is a big part of why feminist, women and men, report having better sex lives.

And yet, still, sexual shame and lack of agency means, for many women, going through their entire lives without positive sexual experiences, either because they are disconnected from their own desires, having learned that sex is shameful, or because their partners make absolutely no attempt to consider what they may want. Talking about it is not an option for many women. In addition to how women are affected, these issues, especially for obvious reasons, the "magical penis" problem and the pressure to perform and "transform" is as bad for men as it is for women.

"There's this huge burden on men to be the aggressors, to be more experienced, to have this innate masculine power to change a woman," explains Shechter, whose virginity blog is an endless source of interesting information. You really should help her finish making her movie so more people can have better sex.

I'll conclude with a tangential aside. Based, as the Newsweek article was, on "publisher's data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches and fan sites" I drew the shocking conclusion that given the wholesale and massively profitably adoption of dominatrix aesthetics at all levels of fashion, it is apparent that there is a trend of women coping with increased equality, freedom and economic power by adopting fashions that speak to their comfort with female equality and free will and men's and women's happy acceptance of powerful females.

I, for one, am personally grateful to the feminists who came before me.

 

Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly

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