This was supposed to be an essay about sexuality, and it was going to be until I read something this morning that discomfited me a little bit.
In one of the groups to which I belong, a rather long conversation thread was carried out last night regarding the objectification of women. A series of photographs which were done as part of a protest portrayed scantily clad women (as well as men), and these pictures were published with cutesy slogans. The pictures of overly attractive, under-dressed people were the hook, and the captions were the message. By about a 3:1 margin in this group discussion, this use of sex was seen as gratuitous and demeaning to the women in the photos and, presumably, to all women everywhere.
There was some give and take in the discussion. Interestingly, it seemed that the few who voiced the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the use of sex to make a point felt compelled to almost apologize for expressing their views. Indeed, while they were willing to be conciliatory about their side of the argument, the contrary point of view did not defend as much as aggressively pursue their side.
The argument for the anti-sexuality side appeared to boil down to a few key points: the use of a woman’s sexuality is sexist; any use of a woman’s body that appears to emphasize her sexuality is exploitative; a woman may not feel empowered by using her sexuality in such a way; if you disagree with any of this, you are not a feminist.
My problem with this argument? I disagree with every one of those arguments against the use of sexuality, and I DO consider myself a feminist.
This whole debate (not just this particular one but the much larger debate about the empowering use of sexuality) fascinates me on a couple of different levels, but I am drawn to it the most as an old woman in a new woman’s body. In a very real sense, my sexuality, not just as an individual but as a woman, a living, breathing, ever-more-curvaceous woman, is one of my obsessions. As I grow breasts, as my skin softens, as my hips and rear fill out, and as my hair gets longer, I am learning to be more comfortable and confident with all of these things every day, especially as far as my breasts go (the go-to body part for most people who would objectify women).
As a pubescent female, I love showing them off. I’m not going to couch this fact in flowery prose or make it seem like something it’s not. I have breasts, and I don’t care to keep them to myself. With the discovery of the right bra, I have gone from just carrying them around with me to doing my best to bring attention to them. And why shouldn’t I? As breasts on a 45-year-old woman go, they perk up rather wonderfully. Should I be ashamed of that? Am I a reverse sexist for taking advantage of the fact that people (men mostly, but it is NOT limited to men) tend to check them out? (And believe me, I watch for that; I’m not ashamed to admit that, either.)
When I look around, I can’t help but notice that I’m not the only woman, young or old, busty or slim, who feels a little empowerment from sharing some cleavage. Are we all wrong? Do we become Phyllis Schlafly if we dare to show a little skin? Do we betray our foremothers if we lend our sexuality to a cause or use it to make a living?
We are not wrong, and no, we do not betray anything by consciously using what is ours to use in whatever way we see fit. I believe that a large part of the women’s movement was predicated on granting women the right of sovereignty over their bodies, and that means having the right to choose how they feel about its use. We deplore when the so-called pro-lifers try to deny a woman the access to birth control or the choice to have an abortion. What then are we doing turning around and saying that, in order to be good little feminists, we must deny her the right to the use of her body and its sexuality?
Finding a healthy comfort level for our sexuality is difficult. We have to fight, seemingly from a distant time in our memories, a time before we truly became sexual beings, to keep from suffocating under the weight of beliefs and images and social norms that would decide for each of us what is good and what is bad about sex and our freedom to embrace it. To be made to feel we are opposed to those who would presume to speak for us, as individuals as well as a collective group, is a little too much for me. It is as insulting and demeaning as the objectification against which they are railing. To attempt to take from someone their empowerment by denying its validity is to engage in just one more form of objectification, this one more subtle and, I think, more insidious. A man may co-opt the image of a woman’s body for his own selfish pleasures and neglect her feelings and essence and worth as a human being, and it is a base act. But it is just as base when someone presumes to judge a woman for choosing to let her body be used.
Any –ism carries with it the temptation to grant oneself favored victim status, and feminism is no different. I consider myself a strong adherent to feminism, both as a philosophy and as a way of life. But I do not allow my belief in “the cause” to blind me to the possibility of a paradigm of excess. By that, I mean that I refuse to allow myself to degrade other women because I do not agree with their choices and expectations. It is an irony nearly unparalleled that the same people who will fight tooth and nail for a woman’s right to do with her body as she pleases when it comes to sex and the prevention of its possible outcomes will denigrate that same woman’s choices when it comes to the use of her sexuality.
Our sexuality is only one aspect of who we are, but it is no less meaningful just because others might try to use it against us. To judge a person for feeling stronger by using their sexuality as they see fit, to say that they cannot possibly gain strength from that, is to deny them a very precious choice, and it politicizes that choice. I can’t think of anything more demeaning.