Cutting off your Nose to Spite your Face

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Sex and Gender

2005 Third Web Papers

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Cutting off your Nose to Spite your Face

Kat Corbin

There are two feminist arguments concerning sex acts that lie on opposite sides of the spectrum. The first is anti-sex feminism, which was initially created as an anti-pornography movement by feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the late 1970s. Using the argument that pornography was dangerous to women because it promoted sexual violence, they crusaded to eliminate pornography in hopes of liberating women from their sexual oppression. MacKinnon argued that attempting to reclaim sex was a moot point, since the very meaning of sex was male domination. In the most literal terms, when a man and a woman (because these movements are primarily centered around heterosexuals) engage in any sex act that involves penetration, the woman's space is invaded. The activist group "Women Against Sex" advocated a strategy of sex resistance: "All sex acts subordinate women...all actions that are part of the practice of sexuality partake of the practice's political function or goal". This statement indicates that women have no control over their own sexuality, even if they are a consenting adult in the eyes of the law.

Anti-sex feminists claim their movement does not necessarily stand against sexuality per se, but rather against the current language and politics of heterosexual encounters. From this perspective, women must resist not only the sexual advances of men but also their own desires and attempt to recreate desire into something for which there is not currently a name. Women cannot use sex as a way to dismantle men from their state of dominance because sex is inherently a large part of male supremacy. Anti-sex feminists argue not solely against acts that benefit men, but also against the language that men created and use to control society. Dworkin notes that "w[omen] have no freedom and no extravagance in the questions we ask or the interpretations we can make...our bodies speak their language. Our minds think in it. The men are inside us through and through". This indicates that women are intrinsically, and unwillingly, tied to men despite differences in lifestyle choices, types of relationships, types of sex, consent, or geography. The tendency to restrict female sexual activity is not a new idea, nor is the idea of withholding sex as punishment. Wendy Chapkis identifies the main problem with this argument by saying "male power is constantly reaffirmed even as it is denounced. In this way, anti-sex and romanticist feminist rhetoric tends to reproduce the very ideology it intends to destabilize." By withholding sex, it is made into something forbidden, something that women should exercise control over. In fact, it becomes the only thing women can exercise control over, except for the tiny little detail of biological sexual urges that exist in women as well. Enter the antithesis: sex-positive feminism.

Sex-positive feminism was created in the early 1980s as a response to both the anti-sex movement and what was seen as the patriarchal control over sexuality. Gayle Rubin notes that "this tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men". The sex-positive movement maintains that women should not have to restrain themselves from sex because men will be gaining pleasure from it. Instead, there should be an effort toward mutual pleasure between the partners, something that is overlooked in the anti-sex movement. When women withhold sex as punishment, it is true that they are gaining control of their bodies. However, what happens when they are finally worn down by men and they "give it up"? That control is gone and women are right back where we started: with men inside us and without any power over our bodies. The overarching theme of the anti-sex/anti-pornography feminist movement is that men are "inside" women and since women are supposed to be pure and good, allowing a man to be in you is equivalent to giving him total and complete power over you. So what happens if, dare I say it, a woman actually enjoys sex because underneath everything else, she is a human being with biologically ordained desires? It seems that withholding the potential for incredible pleasure just to make sure someone else doesn't get any is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Female pleasure is constantly overlooked in the anti-sex movement because, even if a consenting adult female in a monogamous unmarried relationship enters into a sex act with her loving male partner, he still has complete control over her and no woman can feel good as long as she isn't in control of her body. If every woman withheld sex because it was the only way she could maintain control over her body, either the human species would cease to exist or there would be an inordinate amount of rape in the world. Furthermore, if the only way women can maintain control of their selves is through sex, what is the point of feminist movements that don't uphold a definitive statement about sex?

Society has always considered sex the "original sin". This belief has been reinforced by almost every aspect of society: the church, conservatives, the family, and of course, anti-sex feminists. However, awareness of modern variation in type and amount of sexual activity have caused society to "rank" what is more acceptable. In Thinking Sex, Gayle Rubin describes a diagram of the "sex hierarchy". This hierarchy contains two circles, the inner containing more acceptable types of sex, including procreative, married, heterosexual and "vanilla". The outer circle is reserved for types of sex deemed "bad, abnormal and damned" such as non-procreative, unmarried, homosexual and "with manufactured objects". As is audible from these minimalist lists, society as a whole deems the majority of sexual encounters as negative. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s wanted to create a sexual liberation for women. Ironically, the anti-sex followers who call themselves feminists are going directly against the original foundations of the feminist movement. By advocating a withholding of one's body for pleasure, the anti-sex movement is playing right along with conservatives who legislate anti-abortion laws; both groups indirectly disenfranchise women's control over their own bodies. Somewhere in this mass of "sex is bad" propaganda, a mix-up has occurred pertaining to the ultimate goal. If the goal of anti-sex feminism is to help women regain control over their selves by withholding sex, and then in turn, not knowing the full extent of their own bodies, then it appears a conundrum has developed. How are women supposed to know how to control their bodies when they don't actually know their bodies?

According to anti-sex feminists, heterosexual sex acts that involve penetration, no matter what the situation, give total control to the man and none to the woman. However, there are many other types of sex than heterosexual and penetrating. There are sex acts that don't involve vaginal penetration and there a sex acts that are not heterosexual. Interestingly enough, there are more laws concerning sex acts between consenting partners that vary from traditional vanilla than there are for child molesters. For as long as civilized society has existed, people have been experimenting in some way with sex, whether it is through oral-genital contact, the use of manufactured objects, multiple-partner sex, gay and lesbian sex or S&M. The breakdown occurs when people don't acknowledge that what works for them often disgusts others. Sex conflicts arise mostly due to "moral panics", defined as "the "political moment" of sex, in which diffuse attitudes are channeled into political action and from there into social change". This is when that fine line between personal morals and national/state law is crossed all too quickly concerning sex most likely because "legislators are loath to be soft on vice". However, who gets to decide what is "right" when it comes to sex? Sex-positive feminists hold that sexuality is political and it will always be political, thus withholding sex until further notice will only further the oppression that women have been trying to break free from for decades. Argues Rubin, "sexual liberation has been and continues to be a feminist goal...[but] the fact remains that feminist thought about sex is profoundly polarized" leaving too much open ground for feminist and male chauvinist bias. Women are not equal in the current world, nor are they inferior which displays the incredible discrepancy of language for where women truly stand and what they should do to attain equality and respect. Withholding sex is not the answer, because it denies female pleasure, reinforces male dominance and prevents the continuation of the human species. However, if there are some women who buy into the anti-sex ideal and some who do not, this stark division only serves to aggravate the situation. Not only does it not accomplish anything pertaining to what is the best course of action for women, but it also retains the position of supreme sexual power for men. Rubin, as a sex-positive feminist, seems to think that "it is time to recognize the political dimensions of erotic life" presumably because acknowledging the underlying issue will display some answers concerning how women are to proceed in a world bombarding them with contradictory statements about an innate biological act.

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