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On “Women’s Empowerment”
By Lyra Schneider
First, a disclaimer: for the purposes of this event, this piece will be focused primarily on the conflict between socially gendered blocs of male power and female power. The audience is encouraged to think critically about how this conflict is expanded to act on individuals who do not identify as strictly male or strictly female. The audience is also advised that this presentation will cover several potentially triggering topics, including pornography, oral sex, and Abrahamic religious iconography. Finally the audience should not that this paper and the positions therein are undergoing constant revision, and I welcome critique and suggestions.
What is “Women’s Empowerment?” In the ideal sense, we might say that “women’s empowerment” is the process of women, as a social group, gaining power; but is that really what it means?
In contemporary practice, I submit that what is often called “women’s empowerment” is not always what it should be; rather, it is an imaginary solution to very real problems, which has been appropriated by the dominant society in order to placate and enfeeble women’s lib. As someone who strives to emulate Lilith, the original bad woman who put the integrity of her Self above everything else, even God, wish to address this arrest of progress.
By way of example, I will examine the idea of the sexually empowered woman, and its deployment in contemporary culture. 40 years ago a woman enjoying sex may have been empowering, because it was then a revolutionary act. But it would seem that is no longer the case. Consider:
At the dawn of the self-proclaimed feminist movement, it was not expected nor required that women enjoy sex. Rather, they were expected and required to perform it as a marital duty to their husbands. Feminists rebelled against this, citing their role in sex as unequal and therefore unsatisfactory; some of the most radical even questioned whether or not the politics of penetration could ever be made equal. These feminists paved the way to begin a serious critique of the entire culture of sexuality.
The response from the dominant society was to increase focus on female pleasure, perhaps believing that to do so would satisfy our need for freedom from an inherently oppressive system; however, because women were still objectified, this was not truly a task of devotion or reparation, but rather a new condition to be met within that system. And most of us didn’t even notice that it was happening. Now, we have sex-positivity, and the face of cutting-edge “women’s empowerment” is the woman who can enjoy being brutalized and humiliated in porn, educating millions of viewers on the new standard of “what women are supposed to be.” She enjoys sex, but that enjoyment does not seem to belong to her; it is appropriated into the product being sold to the male gaze.
To be clear, it is not that I am saying that a woman who enjoys sex – even sex where she is being hurt or treated like the lesser - can never be empowered. Rather, I am arguing that enjoyment is only a part of the issue; the rest lies in agency. When speaking of women’s empowerment it is not enough for a woman to be able to enjoy sex - she must be able to do so in a way that is not used to reaffirm patriarchal ideals, she must be free to choose the ways in which she enjoys sex, and most importantly, she must be free to have that enjoyment – or any participation in sexuality - be optional.
To engineer the kind of radical social change that would allow a woman to have real choices about her sexuality that transcend the bounds of the compulsory heteronormative sexual mythos – in essence, then, to transform the way that human beings relate to one another - we have to go deeper than understanding the empowerment of an individual woman with normative sexual acts. Women’s empowerment means empowerment for all women, not just individuals, and when one woman is empowered by being able to enjoy her sexuality within the patriarchy, another woman is disempowered in the comparison by not being able to do so; indeed, done with the shaming of sluts, many sexually empowered women now eagerly gang up to shame the “prude,” but this is just as hurtful and problematic.
Having undoubtedly said some polarizing and troubling things at this point, I want to take a moment to clarify my intentions. I am interested in critiquing the way that patriarchal power blocs use “women’s sexual empowerment” to their own advantages, and to a lesser extent, how women may end up being complicit in this process if we are not careful. It is not my intention to shame anyone for their kink or to suggest that it is impossible to explore power structures such as dominance and submission in a non-patriarchal context. Rather, I am interested in illuminating how the patriarchy asserts itself in what is often considered “empowered female sex,” in order to urge caution and awareness as we continue, as women, to resist the cultural trend of male superiority. It is my goal to contribute a perspective to our considerations about whom we have sex with, and under what circumstances, not to judge anyone for those decisions.
So: how does patriarchy assert itself in empowered female sex? Because it is still the norm for men to expect sex from women, as it was before, and now that women are “sexually empowered,” it has become the norm for them to expect women to enjoy it, too. It is no longer enough for a dutiful wife to perform her sexual duties; she must enjoy them. The female lover must get off while doing it, whatever “it” may be. If she is not capable of both doing it and enjoying it, she risks being discarded and replaced by someone who is; or, if no such replacement is available, she will be kept as “the best he could do.” Her inability to enjoy her own objectification has become a deficiency, tolerable to the vast majority of the male culture only when there are no alternatives. This is seen as progress, I think, because some pockets of male culture still do not care at all about female pleasure; thus, seeming to care about it in any capacity is a departure from the traditional. But departure from the traditional is not enough if it still reinforces the base requirements of the culture: women obligated to men, in a way that clearly privileges some women over others based on their sexual capacities.
Knowing this, those of us who are able to do so start to train ourselves to meet the cultural need for pleasurable, nubile women. In the process we reify the superiority of the male sexual gaze and desire, while sabotaging the hopes of our sisters to be met with a genuine kindness and respect, to be seen as equals. We have forgotten, I think, that the problematic core of our society’s sexuality is not that women do not enjoy it, but that they do not have a choice in whether or not to participate, and that many if not most forms of participation are inherently antithetical to women being seen as equals, whether they enjoy it or not. If enjoyment is found through those practices, it does not serve us as a whole; it serves the patriarchy.
Why do I say that many if not most forms of participation are inherently antithetical to women being seen as equals? I recognize that this is a very contentious statement for some, but consider the culture of our sexuality. From “gentlemen’s clubs,” to nudie mags, to the obsession with blow jobs beginning at puberty and never going away, and even to so-called feminist porn, virtually every act of sexuality that we discuss in the broader culture is dominated by the male gaze and the male desire. When the female desire is included, it is subordinate to the male one.
This is epitomized in the classical pornographic trope of the woman who “loves giving blowjobs.” This might be considered a sexually empowered woman, particularly if she chose to so identify (thus earning her greater appeal to any producer who might have use for her, since “empowered woman” is something of a buzzword these days), but the reality of the act suggests something different. Her desire and pleasure in performing this act, even if real – and, I will tell you from experience, it most certainly can be – are still tied unavoidably to the conditions of the act, which are submission. The male risks nothing in the exchange, and does none of the work unless he is brutalizing her. Meanwhile the woman risks not only her effort and her physical safety, but the integrity of the organ of her speech. The system of throat, mouth, teeth, tongue and lips, which for most of us creates the sounds and ideas that tell others that we exist, is literally stuffed up with the male organ of pleasure. Identity is suspended on behalf of the male desire. Whether the person doing it feels empowered or not, this is subordination; the empowerment would seem to come from feeling free to perform in a certain desired role, to be desirable, but this particular role – submission - can only reinforce the cultural assumption of male superiority when it is being consumed en masse, as in porn, with no chance to filter it or contextualize it.
(Sections in Italics were not read at the presentation for length/clarity) This idea is often challenged by the positing of feminist porn as a counter example. However, from all that I have seen thus far, feminist porn is primarily a form of apologetics which helps train women into their submission and forgives men for their affiliation with the more overtly violent forms of porn that they are used to, but it does not erase the meanings embedded in those acts. Sexual objectification is sexual objectification; just like farming, making it more “humane” does not eliminate the underlying problem of the act. An animal on the farm that is loved and tended to is still brutally slaughtered before its time in order that its body may serve the will of its masters; without the literal slaughter, though for many there is certainly a metaphoric one involved, the same applies to women in feminist porn. Both are a form of slavery; one of the body’s life, the other of the body’s image. Pleasure becomes a product, the means of which are controlled by the male-dominated industry.
Men are sexually objectified in many of these en masse configurations such as porn as well, but their objectification benefits them comparatively speaking because it is a higher-ranked objectification. They are objectified as unbending tyrants, while women are the supplicant; but perhaps more destructively, if you look closely enough, it is virtually always the case that men are configured as “correct” and women as “wrong.” It doesn’t matter what the woman is saying or doing; if she likes it, she is a “dirty whore,” and even if those words are said lovingly, they are still meant violently. But if she doesn’t like it, she is a “prude bitch.” She cannot win. Meanwhile, the male can do no wrong; he is the casual dude, or the stern punisher, or the erotic lover, but in all of these it is inherently written onto his performance that what he is doing is right. The only exception to this is when the cultural discourse deigns to call it rape, and even then there are contentions from the patriarchy about whether what he’s done is really wrong or not, and accusations against his victim. In general, the cultural myth of the sexual man can make no mistakes, he needs no education, and if he ever expresses any caution it is only to demonstrate his mastery and control while the woman demonstrates her weakness and reliance on that mastery and control; without it she would be lost. It is propaganda for sexual colonialism at best. It is a clear example of the patriarchal narrative using ideas of women’s sexual empowerment to promote the status quo; much like the Ancient Athenias gave the cult of Dionysus a Festival in the city, so they could contain its radical nature, and that festival eventually became a principle platform for pro-state propaganda.
(Sections in Italics were not read at the presentation for length/clarity) Even in the cases of porn where men are depicted as somehow wrong or incorrect in the script – for instance, porn where men are punished by women – it is usually clear that this is still a male fantasy, something the man willingly submits to in order to play out a dream of weakness. It is not a real transfer of power, but a mockery of the idea that power could ever be so transferred. The woman who seems to dominate the man may once again be considered empowered, but she is still participating in a system that ultimately privileges the male desire; she is cast as a “villain” just as surely as the man is cast as the “victim.” In this parodic inversion, the woman is still, ultimately, seen as the one who is wrong, the only difference being that now her very “wrong”-ness is a more visually realized character trait to be eroticized.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this, and indeed to all the points I have made thus far, but taken in the broadest consideration one cannot deny that these trends characterize the vast majority of our sexual culture, and that this basis is therefore written into any variances on it. Nothing which participates in the culture without directing sharp, pointed critique at all of the underlying problems can ever really escape it, and so the culture goes on reproducing an endless series of clichés and motifs of sexual behavior built on stereotyping and objectifying the roles of both men and women.
While this is obviously damaging to both psyches, it is clear that men are offered a better deal by this arrangement. Given that fact, if the entire society is to be free of the power that the culture of sexuality has presently created, men must be provided with good reason to give it up, perhaps moreso in some cases than women must. Ethically speaking it is clearly the right thing for them to do, but in strategic terms that rarely matters. Where is the incentive for the feminist man to abandon his place as sexual potentate when the ideal feminist woman is cast, by the dominant cultural narrative, as one who not only accepts her place as sexual lesser, but enjoys it?
The culture of sexuality which we currently possess is built on the assumption that women are lesser. Finding ways for women to enjoy their position within that culture is not revolutionary, it is fatalist. The awakening of passion, of desire to be touched and pleased in a meaningful, truly empowering way – and, consequently, the awakening of awareness that not all women may desire any form of this, and that society must evolve to accommodate them as equals - is a crucially important step for womankind. But if we submerge that passion in obedience, if we dilute it to fit the pattern which already exists, then we are actually lending the strength of our eros to the very culture which has worked so hard to enslave us.
The old cultures understood the threat of a woman’s eros effectively directed. Consider the myth of Lilith – the first woman according to Rabbinic tradition, often addressed by feminist theoreticians. Lilith came before Eve, and was made of the dirt like Adam; together they were man and woman made equal in the garden. Adam, symbolizing the male potency, attempted to dominate and control Lilith; specifically this is symbolized by her taking a position underneath him in sex. But Lilith resisted this configuration. Unwilling to be dominated, to be enslaved, she asserted that, having been made of dirt like Adam, she was his equal, and demanded to be treated as such; she wanted to be on top of Adam during sex. Again, this configuration is symbolic. It is a perhaps imperfect image for us, as in contemporary reality a woman being on top has very little potency, but the symbol is what counts. Lilith demanded sexual authority, and to be granted power herself.
Adam refused her request. He would not lie below her. He would not grant her equality or agency. In her rage at this injustice, Lilith spoke the forbidden, unpronounceable name of God, and flew into the sky, departing Eden forever to become the mother of demons, the destroyer of Adam’s children – symbolic, remember, of the followers of his society - the anti-woman that the patriarchy rightly fears. She did not generate women’s empowerment purely by enjoying sex; she did it by rebelling against the very structure of sex, and thus male authority, as she knew it, and by becoming a nightmare woman who fought constantly to undermine the demands of her patriarchal culture. To follow her example and dismantle the society which binds us, to claim our birthright as children of Lilith, it is necessary for women to do more than simply learn to love the sex we are offered, but to demand a rewriting of the sexual contract for our entire society.
(Sections in Italics were not read at the presentation for length/clarity) To do anything less is to accept the role of Eve: eternally blasted for our curiosity, yoked forever to the mortal sufferings of a tryannical God, mothers to a lost race which serves that patriarchal will, blinded by the light of its promises while Lilith shakes her head from the shadows that we cast behind us.
In this new contract we must have options; we must have an end to compulsory sexuality in all its configurations; we must have pleasure, yes, but not have it used as a product to market male superiority; we must have respect for all women as equals, regardless of race, class or orientation, whether cis or trans, sane or mad, with or without disability – sexual or asexual - or anything else imaginable that might, yes, affect our ability to be sexually normative. Indeed, in this new contract we must undo sexual normativity as we know it.
Obviously I cannot tell us exactly how to achieve such a contract, but I hope that the ideas and goals described here will inspire contemplation and activism; that all of us, regardless of gender, will move forward with awareness of the ways in which female pleasure is now incorporated into those structures, and caution towards resisting that. Thank you for your time and attention, and enjoy the rest of the take-over.