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Feminism and Sexual Depersonalization

Commentary by Greg Lewis / NewMediaJournal.US
April 30, 2006

One of the rallying points for feminists during the 1960s and '70s was that women had become, thanks to the emerging popular culture of the era, "sex objects." It goes without saying that advertising agencies since mid-century, having assimilated the lesson — duh! — that "sex sells," have used ever more provocative images of women to help promote their clients' products, both in print and in the then-exploding medium of television. Tame as the early issues of Playboy Magazine now seem, for a couple of decades after the first Playboy appeared in the mid-1950s, Hugh Hefner's publication helped seal the deal that women were pretty much anything but real people.

Indeed, Hefner and his flagship publication came to stand for the liberalization of morality. Hefner managed quite an extraordinary parlay: while epitomizing the objectivization of women through the images he presented in Playboy Magazine, Hef at the same time managed to become something of a spokesperson for liberal causes in general and for women's rights in particular, for the rights of women to "own" their sexuality. Hefner's achievement has to go down as one of the most audacious sleight-of-hand maneuvers ever perpetrated over time and with the result that its perpetrator became (and remains, for God's sake!) a virtual demigod of the softcore porn industry, not to say wealthy beyond imagining.

Following Hefner's lead, through the early 1980s, at least — if we're to judge by the increasingly sleazy photo spreads in the ever-growing number of glossy men's magazines, not to mention the emergence of cheerleading squads, such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, for professional sports teams — the image of women was relentlessly reinforced in the collective unconscious of the American male by means of the technique of objectivization. Translation: Publishing color-enhanced "spread shots" of naked women in order to "one-up" their competitor, Hefner, who resisted, despite reduced readership and revenues, for what seemed like decades the impulse to "lower" his "standards."

Fast forward to the early 21st century: In the wake of the exponential increase in exposure that has resulted from the blossoming of digital media, particularly the Internet, the term "mainstreaming" has emerged to describe the practice of bringing into the realm of acceptability cultural phenomena formerly characterized as, and broadly understood by a majority of Americans to be, by conventional standards, "degenerate" and "immoral." Mainstreaming usually occurs because the revenues — including those generated through internet venues — such previously morally unacceptable phenomena were now able to generate simply can no longer be ignored.

The "rap artist" Snoop Doggy Dogg, for instance, is one contemporary example of a performer, most of whose work celebrates values a majority of Americans consider deplorable but who has nonetheless, because of his cultural presence and his ability to get lots of people to spend (in the aggregate) serious money to buy "product" associated with him, has been deemed worthy of being mainstreamed; that is, presented without apology for his past indiscretions as acceptable to a general audience.

Porn star Jenna Jamison is another example of a performer who is currently in the process of being "mainstreamed." Despite the fact that she gained her following in a broadly unacceptable genre, pornographic films, and despite the fact that she became a "star" performing sexual acts no self-respecting American parent would countenance for his or her daughter, Jamison's success, measured by her rise to prominence as a revenue generator in the porn industry, has led purveyors of popular culture to attempt to present her as someone to be accepted, even, perhaps, as someone who deserves a "say" in how things should be with regard to what we Americans give credence to.

To backtrack a bit: During the 1980s, when pornographic movies really began to hit their stride, the image of women as sex objects would seem to have reached its apogee, or its nadir, depending on your viewpoint. From Larry Flint's Hustler Magazine to the porn films of John Holmes (aka Johnny Wadd) and others, male and female, of his ilk, theretofore unimaginably degenerate portrayals of women as sex objects managed to become the unspoken watchword of a decade, while at the same time the unnaturally saturated pink of female genitalia in "Men's" magazines had arguably become its representative color. So immersed in sex-sleaze did it seem our culture had become during the 1980s that one would have thought it couldn't have gotten any worse.

Enter the internet. If Al Gore really did invent it, then he's culpable as the enabler of an even more unregenerate turn of events with regard to America's morality than would have been thought possible prior to the emergence of the former Vice President's alleged electronic spawn. If nothing else, just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, Al Gore — despite his having been outed as someone worthy of no more than manquè status with regard to being an internet pioneer — seems to be continuing to demonstrate via his ostensible creation that we haven't even scratched the surface of moral degeneracy.

Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton!

I think it's fair to say that up until the mid-1980s, the women's movement was fairly cohesive on the point that the objectification of women, the turning of females into sex objects, was to be resisted at all costs. As comedian Elaine Boosler lamented, "I'm just a person trapped inside a woman's body."

This position, that women are effectively "objectivized" (that is, denied recognition as "complete" human beings simply because they are female, has been defended eloquently by such feminist spokespeople as the late Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin, who would likely be described as taking a conservative position with regard to the impact of prostitution and pornography on the women's movement, has observed, in her 1989 book Men Possessing Women, with regard to the impact of pornography on society, that "[t]he pornography industry in the United States is larger than the record and film industries combined." Dworkin saw the growth of pornography as diametrically opposed to the feminist objective of having women accepted into society based on their capabilities to contribute to society and not on sexually defined parameters.

Two other representative feminist writers, Shiela Jeffreys, author of the book "The Idea of Prostitution," and Catherine MacKinnon, author of "Women's Lives, Men's Laws" and "Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues," agree. In MacKinnon's words, "Pornography clearly represents dominant male-supremacist sexual values, or it would not be so massively profitable." (Never mind that she is applying a conclusion derived from the application of her own principles to support those very principles. Let's let that slide for now.)

Dworkin, Jeffreys, and MacKinnon notwithstanding, however, recent debate among feminists seems to indicate that such heretofore indisputably enslaving practices as prostitution, pornography, phone sex, and hosting lap dances — indeed, sex commerce involving women in general — might in fact now be liberating, if not downright ennobling.

Sallie Tisdale, in her book, "Talk Dirty To Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex," asserts that pornography is "a central symbol of the society-wide confusion over sex." While she admits that pornography exists in order to "arouse our primal sexual response," she is not willing to admit that pornography runs counter to the values and ends of the women's movement. She criticizes "conservative feminists such as . . . Andrea Dworkin [who] believe that violence, even murder, are the end point of all pornography — and that pornography is the natural product of a sexually violent culture." Rather, Tisdale asserts, the issue is one of freedom of expression. In Tisdale's words, "Prostitutes and pornography remove sex from the arena of romance and love and directly address the libido." As such, according to Tisdale, they are liberating in that they tend to eliminate cultural influences from analysis of a phenomenon's effects. Ultimately the issue is one of freedom of expression.
A recent survey has (albeit perhaps self-servingly) indicated that women make up as much as 30% of the audience for internet porn.

Not only that, women viewing porn seem to be, if we're to believe the interpretation of the folks who conducted the referenced survey, "empowered" by their ability to "choose" how they like their sleaze.

It would seem that feminist leaders in the 1990s, recognizing a set of coattails they might ride when they saw one, and glomming onto the recently-internet-generated-even-more-greatly-increased relaxation of moral standards — standards which had already slackened beyond recognition during the previous 35+ years of the sexual revolution — may indeed have revised their stance on porn, if not on sex commerce in general. Suddenly, where females who sold themselves and their images in the service of sleazy sexuality and cheap thrills had been a force counter to women's interests because what they did encouraged the objectivization of their sex, now one's body and the images thereof have become a force for liberation, pretty much no matter what one decided to do with them.

Although conflict between the more liberal and the more conservative branches of the feminist movement continutes, the fact is that quite quickly feminism (or at least the more widely publicized liberal branch of the movement) has seemed to change its stance against sexual depersonalization to one that favors embracing everything from prostitution to pornography as venues for women's "taking control of" or "owning" their sexuality. ("Sexuality" here, it should be noted, has been redefined to mean, not how women interact in fundamentally human and potentially regenerative relationships with real-world human sex partners, but the sexual images and representations of themselves and the sexual services they — women — are willing to perform in exchange for money.)

Indeed, the authors who contributed essays to the book, "Liberty For Women," edited by Wendy McElroy, virtually universally support women's "freedom of choice," by which it seems is meant the right of women to do everything from bear arms to participate in the making of pornographic films to engage in prostitution, and damn the torpedoes (sorry). This certainly seems to me to be a somewhat radical departure from the view that all of the above-mentioned activities run decidedly counter to women's interests, at least if they wish to escape the influence of their male controllers.

By feminism's newly and conveniently enlisted equation, the amount of money one might receive in exchange for one's sexual favors, or for pornographic images of oneself, now translates not to a measure of the degree to which one is enslaved by the dominant male culture, but rather to the degree of freedom one might realize through the sale of one's sexuality. The "skin trade," where it has previously been seen as an instrument for the enslavement and degradation of women, now seems to have morphed, thanks to the convoluted logic applied by at least a vocal and representative segment of the women's movement, into a means by which women can "own" their sexuality (translation: their bodies and the images thereof) and trade same for the means (money provided by their male enslavers) to escape the very thing that seemed the means of their enslavement in the first place. That is, having to sell their sexuality as a commodity purchased largely by males is now widely seen as an instrument of female liberation rather than as a sign of submissiveness.

I mean, talk about selling out your previously Marxist conception of sexuality to one that veritably smacks of imperialist capitalism!

This revisionist understanding among feminists of the potential of sex-for-sale enterprise to liberate women is, I would caution, a peculiarly American phenomenon. Around the world the female slave trade has continued to flourish. While — at least if we swallow the flimsy rationale many American feminists muster in favor of prostitution and pornography — American women would seem to be flourishing through the public practice of choosing to be photographed and filmed in an array of what little more than a quarter of a century ago would have been deemed degrading activities, women in many Third World countries, and who are by stark contrast forced to engage in the same practices, are arguably doomed to fates no sentient human wants even to consider, let alone to countenance.

Despite the (disputably) enlightened position American feminism would appear to be taking with regard to the liberating potential for women that the virtual skin trade seems to have come to represent, the fact is that with regard to this issue, American feminists have allowed their convoluted logic to preclude consideration of what's actually going on in the real world.

To bottom-line this discussion, the egregious double standard contemporary feminism has set up regarding what is and what is not an acceptable exchange value for female sexuality represents, minimally, compromise in the extreme. The very fact feminists would so much as entertain the idea that there might be an exchange-value assigned to one's humanity (as expressed through the objectivization of one's sexuality) is unacceptable at best, an egregious violation of feminism's constituency and its values at worst.

Either it's OK for our daughters to become prostitutes or to sell for public consumption by means of any venue available images of themselves, naked or engaging in what used to be referred to as "lascivious" acts, or it's not. If we don't want our own daughters subjected to this degrading and dehumanizing treatment, why would we countenance it with regard to the daughters of parents of other Americans, or, for that matter, people of diverse cultures, or races, or governments, no matter what their nationality?

Put another way, the feminist movement seems to have become, like so many leftist causes, inordinately perverse. The re-articulations and reconsiderations one must go through to even keep track of, let alone make sense of, the "feminist" position with regard to the fundamental issue of how we ought to view women in American society today . . . well, just let me say that it makes my head spin.

According to many feminists, it's all right if Bill Clinton, during his Presidency, raped or otherwise sexually degraded any number of women with whom he came in contact, but it's not all right for us to take him to task for these alleged indiscretions.

Again, according to many feminists, it's all right if we "mainstream"porn stars and prostitutes; that is, if we hold them up as figures exemplifying the liberation women can achieve through selling their sexuality to the highest bidder. But let someone propose that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an example on which young American girls might model their behavior or to whose accomplishments they might aspire, and feminists will scream bloody murder that this woman's extraordinary and exemplary achievements somehow represent a veritable paradigm of everything that runs counter to what the Women's Movement stands for.

It does seem that, in contravention of what appear to me to be some pretty fundamental principles underlying the women's movement, feminists are elevating to positions of prominence women who at a minimum exhibit behaviors that exemplify the objectivization of women's sexuality. At the same time they're singling out for derision and derogation the accomplishments of women such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who have truly managed to transcend the very boundaries to women's achievement that feminists have so long touted as limitations to be overcome.

It's high time we called feminists to account and held them responsible for the positions they represent that run precisely counter to the values most responsible Americans hold and to the aspirations most Americans have regarding the responsible women we hope our daughters will become. Which is to say, it's high time that we acknowledge publicly the fact that the compromised and degenerate version of what constitutes so-called "acceptable" sexual behavior put forth by too many left/liberal feminists today is unacceptable.

Furthermore, it's high time that the image of American women which emphasizes moral and behavioral standards that reinforce a positive image of women, especially, the image of women as valuable based on their identities as contributors to the betterment of American society, and not as sexual beings according to some skewed left/liberal notion of women as sexual objects, be reasserted.

All this is to say that left/liberals, including many feminist "spokespeople" as well as many journalists who share the unregenerate view of women in America that so many on the left seem bent on perpetuating . . . all this is to say that those on the left have simply got it wrong on this issue. They're working from a set of assumptions that no longer applies. They seem to be operating on the basis, not that women in America today are interested in finding ways to express themselves and to achieve success in the world based on their humanity and the value of what they have to offer to the betterment of humankind regardless of their sex, but that American women want to sacrifice themselves to a feminist political principle which, because it has come to embrace and promote the image of women as sexual objects, now represents a political position precisely the opposite of what feminism, at its most salubrious, had stood for.

The fact is that the American women I know personally do not want to give up their identities and their chances for success in the real world to some flimsy concatenation of leftist/feminist principles. Nor are they willing to countenance or to support other "women" who are willing to do the same. Rather, they want to be counted among those who make genuine and lasting contributions to our culture and to the perpetuation of the values America represents. If this means fighting to transcend the limitations our society would impose on women's achievement, then that's part of the deal. No one I know would deny women the legitimate right to realize their full human potential, nor to assist them where called upon in their struggle to achieve this end. This, to me, is what feminism is all about.


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