My outfit does not consent on my behalf

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[a metal cilice, kind of thing worn by Opus Dei faithful for 'corporal mortification'

Inspired by a blog sent to me about EA Games ‘Booth Babes’ at ComicCon, I thought I’d write a blog about spanking. You know, as you do. Issues of Bondage, Discipline/Dominance, Sado-Masochism (BDSM), pornography and objectification are so huge I’m not going to pretend that I’ve done them justice here, but these are my initial thoughts so lets get, erm, cracking….

I’ve written before about misogyny in the gaming industry (here and here frinstance), which is ridiculous when 40% of (US) gamers are female. There was also a lot written recently about EA Games employing ‘Booth Babes’ and then asking for them to be sexually harassed by ComicCon delegates. But the most interesting blog (not worksafe) I have read on this was from a submissive model on the UK spanking scene.

This was interesting because it challenged me and my preconceptions about women engaged in BDSM. It wasn’t what she said on the EA Games issue, all of which I agree with: this objectifies women, ‘Booth Babe’ is a demeaning term, it encourages sexual harassment not just of the ‘Booth Babes’ but all women attending ComicCon etc.

There are two things that I find challenging about this: empowered feminists being sexually submissive and BDSM models criticising the objectification of women.

Now I’ve read a couple of blogs by sexually submissive feminists (such as the very good Girl With a One Track Mind) and it’s something I’m really trying to get my head around. It seems counter-intuitive to me because my instinct is to encourage women to be powerful and assertive against a historical backdrop of oppression. But this blogger dresses up in school uniforms and other costumes, and is spanked, dominated, tied-up and sexually submissive.

Plus she is a model on the BDSM scene and so is photographed in these situations and yet identifies the fact that encouraging men to get dodgy pictures with some ‘booth babes’ crosses a line into objectification.

I realise that finding these two things ‘challenging’ is an emotional response rather than an intellectual or philosophical one. So here’s why my emotional response is wrong….

What is definitely unfeminist, is a feminist telling another woman how to have sex and what she can and can’t get her kicks out of. I want my feminism to include, for example, those women who have a gendered analysis of the world, they campaign for women’s rights, they challenge people’s everyday sexism and yet they’re also down with consensual arse-slapping.

The counter argument is: these women are perpetuating rape myths, they’re playing out their own internalised misogyny and they are making it harder for other women who are fighting against patriarchy. I simply do not think that this is true.

Firstly, I have found that those involved in the BDSM scene or burlesque tend to have far greater social rules and sexual etiquette than in society at large. Because of the nature of the activities, trust, self-awareness and boundaries are far more strictly defined. These are people with a greater awareness of their own sexuality and the concept of empowerment through sexuality than your average non-handcuff owner.

Secondly, if you believe in the empowerment of women you have to accept that they should be empowered to do things you personally wouldn’t want to do. This sometimes manifests itself as ‘feminism going too far’ or ‘women just acting like men’. Well yes, because if you want to give women choices you can’t then try and make those choices for them.

If a woman chooses to engage in a bit of ol’ spanking then that is her choice. To say that I have a greater analysis of her motivations and am more aware of her sexuality than she is herself is deeply patronising, condescending and simply wrong. And it is particularly wrong when the women in question clearly demonstrate their political awareness, identify themselves as feminists and critically engage with debates around consent, sexual freedom and privacy.

This doesn’t mean that non-spankers can’t engage in debate about the issues, but it does mean you have to do so from an informed position and with a sophisticated understanding of human sexuality which goes beyond ‘sexual practice A is wrong, sexual practice B is alright – says me’.

Finally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that individual women are responsible to women at large for their personal sexual proclivities. Women regularly bear the burden of their gender; if they succeed they are personally responsible for breaking down social barriers. If they fail, it in some way implicates all women in that failure.

The second ‘thing I found challenging’ was a BDSM model criticising the objectification of women in the EA Games example. The simple question being “isn’t that what you’re doing?”. Again this needs a little more sophistication on my part.

Two (linked) issues involved in the ‘pornography: right or wrong’ debate are female sexuality within the broad context of patriarchy and whether all porn is therefore objectification.

As a society we tend to make a direct link between female sexuality, what women wear, how they behave and how the rest of society should therefore react to them. This is the basis of the ‘she was asking for it’ rationale for rape, as though an outfit can consent to sex on behalf of its wearer. Just try and think what a man would have to wear in order to be asking for rape or sexual assault.

Putting aesthetics and scaring little children aside, a woman should be able to walk down the street naked without the risk of being raped. Clothes, lack of clothes or the wearing of sexualised clothing (for want of a better phrase) does not over-ride your ability to consent to sex. Your clothes do not remove the ability of another human being to stop themselves committing an assault.

Plus, I don’t think there is something intrinsically wrong with looking at sexual images of people. Yes there is a historical legacy of oppression of women, of women exploited by a male-dominated porn industry. That is context, not intrinsic so we try and change the context. This comes down to what sexual objectification means and its impact. Do all sexualised images, female or male, necessarily separate the physical appearance from their existence as an individual?

I think not. And while I understand the corrosive effect that pumping out degrading images of people can have (whether women or indeed, starving Africans) that is not true of all representations or all ‘consumers’. There is no getting away from the class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age etc etc aspects of this. But they simply make this more complicated rather than less as many marginalised groups, identities and sexualities find great empowerment in representations of their sexual liberation.

All pornography and/or erotica is exploitative, sexist, racist, homophobic, size-ist? I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In sum, if there is any walk of life where I want there to be feminists it’s in the BDSM scene.

So, ahem, more power to your elbow.

I am genuinely interested in debating this issue and am open to different points of view on it. Just don’t be pervy – I’ll just not publish your post and regard you a sad wanker.


7 Responses to “My outfit does not consent on my behalf”

  • Jared Says:

    Just out of curiosity on my part, but could it be that the objectification of women (in terms of modeling) in the gaming industry (and all generalized advertising for the most part) has become part of the modern zeitgeist due to the strong emotional responses these images elicit? Both women and men are more likely to pay attention to female nudity even if it is a negative reaction.

    The goal of using nudity should be to draw initial attention rather than to elicit brand recognition or recall, as data indicate nudity does not assist in the later two points. Objectification is a result of sexuality being used as an interest-getting device. It is effective across the spectrum of men and women to some degree. Once you attract the attention, you can then sell your product, but male nudity seems to not have the same effect as female nudity.

    Interestingly, it seems relevance of nudity in the advertisement plays quite a role in the overall effect of advertisement effectiveness. To the best of my knowledge, the difference in reactions of men and women to male and female nudity has not yet been established. It would be interesting to examine sexual orientation with respect to nudity and sexuality in advertising.

    Finally, since sexuality is so very pervasive in the gaming conventions, and seemingly quite effective considering how well these conventions are, is the sexuality somehow considered (perhaps not consciously) as relevant to gaming in general?

  • Lucy Says:

    It's such a tough issue to confront as a feminist, and as a scientist because the only data I have to go on is from anti-porn/prostitution institutions (Robert Jensen et al)

    Having been introduced to BDSM via a deeply misogynistic community, the whole "those involved in the BDSM scene or burlesque tend to have far greater social rules and sexual etiquette than in society at large," that is repeated allover the sex-positive/feminist blogosphere simply doesn't represent my experience AT ALL. So just as I don't want to say "my experience was horrible, so BDSM is inherently evil," i also don't believe the queer/sex positive blogger's experience of the BDSM scene is entirely representative of the role of BDSM in society as a whole.

    Whilst obvs no pornography involving consenting adults is inherently a bad thing, I do think those making porn need to be considerate of the context in which their work will be viewed. Given the acceptability of rape within our culture, given that the majority of mainstream porn is mixogynistc, it's not possible to assume that everyone viewing images of submissive women are processing those images in a good way.

    If we could replace all the throatjob/double penetration/bondage porn sites online with those featuring women who enjoy such activities, rather than women who don't, of course that would help, but if porn depicting women as submissive, and men as sadistic is all we ever see, and the rape statistics just keep getting more and more depressing…. i just don't see it as helpful in any way.

  • Catherine Redfern Says:

    Hi! I don't think Girl With a One Track Mind identifies as sexually submissive (although to be fair it's a while since I read her book). Obviously no-onw can speak for her, but I haven't got that impression from what I have read. If you mean she enjoys penetrative sex, that's not submissive per se.

    The blogger Bitchy Jones has a lot on this, i.e. that anyone who enjoys penetration are automatically seen as being submissive and this is basically sexist. I'm not saying this is what you were saying, but just confused about how anyone could read the Girl as submissive.

  • DuWayne Brayton Says:

    To expand on the point about the acceptability of BDSM, it is also important to recognize that a great many people who engage as submissives are doing so to balance power differentials. Women who are in positions of great responsibility and/or are the primary decision makers – whether per their career, homelife or both, are often interested in being submissive in a sexual context because it allows them to let go to some degree or another – to get a break from those responsibilities. This is just as true of men, as it is of women.

    And when you get to folks who are in really high power positions, this goes into some interesting extremes.

    I really appreciate this post and am looking forward to taking a break from a series on moral relativism to address it further. I tend to get rather cranky with people who espouse feminist ideals, then try to beat women who don't fit their paradigm over the head. I tend to believe that it is just as misogynistic to presume to tell a women that her sexual behaviors are somehow reflecting poorly on other women. When espoused feminists are using the same puritanical language of the religious right, prototypical patriarchy, I fail to see why I should make a distinction between them.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    @catherine redfern
    I only read Girl with a one track mind ages ago, so she may have well (as is her right!) changed her peccadilloes. But she certainly used to be submissive: http://girlwithaonetrackmind.blogspot.com/2004_01_01_archive.html (see Wed Jan 21 2004)

    @Lucy
    I'm absolutely no expert on BDSM, I just know people on the scene who I respect and care about. This is of course self-selecting as I'm not likely to have friends who are misogynistic and into BDSM.

    Not that I'm obsessed or anything, but there was an interesting post on GWOTM about her witnessing a female dominatrix in action and feeling uncomfortable because she felt this woman was a man hater (trying to find the link now, will put it up when I do)

    Did make me worry that it is just as likely to be true the other way round.

  • Samia Says:

    Thanks for this post. I guess this discussion is geared at "outsiders," but my immediate reactions would be:

    1) It is really hard to find male-identified people who can deal with a true "switch"

    2) In the past it has been difficult for me to be completely sure that a male-identified partner's dom tendencies come from a place of love and respect rather than…suppressed misogyny

    I am feeling DuWayne's comment. Sometimes the bedroom can be the only place you can let go.

    And to be completely random, I don't like the term sex-positive, as (to me) it implies that people who don't identify as such are somehow against sex. And it kind of seems to erase asexual folks altogether. I dunno. Maybe it's just that everyone I know who identifies as such has used THEIR oh-so-liberal idea of sex to criticize the ideas and opinions of women from other cultures. Sometimes it's the "liberal" folks who want to tell others what to do and how to think.

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