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If it’s so great, we can be honest about it

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 25, 2009 17:59 EDT
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To my fellow free-wheeling, sex positive feminists, I have to beg you once again to prioritize intellectual honesty over proving your bona fides of non-prudery. In the long run, being scrupulously honest about certain sexual practices is more sex-positive, for reasons I’ll detail. But let me start with the links that brought this on. It all started with Jessica Wakeman writing a defense of facials (that is, acting out this pornographic trope in your bedroom), a defense she issued after she wrote a piece for the Frisky where she implied that taking a shot to the face is a minimum entrance requirement to being a good girlfriend. As for the latter piece, well let’s just say that it’s not my experience that every guy desires to have his girlfriend admit to being a bad girl for liking sex and then punishing her in a demeaning way for it. In fact, while it’s still a minority thing, a lot of men get off on the idea of unapologetic female sexuality.

But on the subject of whether one is a Bad Feminist if you like someone ejaculating in your face, my opinion is close to Amanda Hess’s: No, of course not. I’d even go a step further than Amanda and say that it’s not really a compromise with the patriarchy if you do it like getting married is. Sex is a wild and woolly thing, and I don’t blame anyone who has integrated sexual shaming into their libido and really gets off on being degraded and shamed. If that’s your thing, go with Jesus. Seriously. Get off how you want. I’m glad you’re having fun. But for the love of god, please quit constructing self-serving arguments where you both get to get off on being demeaned while denying that’s what it is. This sort of thing has ramifications for people that aren’t interested in being demeaned and don’t find it fun.

Sadly, denying that the shot to the face is about degradation is what Jessica does:

I see those commenters’ points, but I have to respectfully disagree with ‘em. I think leaving facials up to the porn stars—actors who are making the facial appear to humiliate the woman—is what keeps it looking demeaning. Certainly some facials are depicted in porn as humiliating or degrading, but not every man who wants to give a facial wants it to degrade and humiliate just like it looks onscreen. Many do love and respect their partners, and know, to varying degrees, that porn isn’t real. Likewise, some of those female partners enjoy the act as well.

Well, because they get off on being degraded, I’d imagine. I don’t disagree that people can bracket off their sex life and otherwise be good to each other—S&M types swear they do it all the time, and I believe them. But what’s great about them is they admit that the degradation is the point. You can’t have it both ways. Later, Jessica kinda sorta admits that this might be about domination, and compares it to spanking, a common and general playful form of domination. But that strikes me as a misleading comparison. Spanking is closer to tickling in the real world, and the facial is closer to being slapped in the face. Again, if being slapped in the face is your thing, go with it. But don’t pretend it’s something it’s not.

And the face is the thing. Figleaf picks this ball up and runs with it, but he gets into this dissection where he assumes that the debate is “inside/outside the body”. Interesting, but irrelevant when talking about the facial. The real axis is on the face/anywhere else. What everyone is afraid to talk about, I believe, is that the facial is a visual representation of spitting in someone’s face. Which is a very specific trope, and that’s why it’s powerful. That’s why it’s comparable to slapping someone in the face. That has roughly one meaning. If you get off on that meaning, go for it. But don’t pretend it’s something it’s not. (I know I’m being repetitive, but I also want it to be 100% clear that I’m disagreeing with the intellectual dishonesty, not trying to shame someone for getting off on degradation.) The face and doing things to it is loaded, whether we like it or not. Tickling someone is playful in a way that poking them in the face isn’t. Spanking their butt vs. slapping them on the face, same thing. The very reason for going for the face is you don’t want this to be mistaken for playful, low stakes, affectionate minor acts of dominance. And it’s different than just smearing sex juices all over your face, for the same reason that eating messy is different than having someone shove a pie in your face, and kissing heavily isn’t the same thing as having someone spit in your face. And if you’re into the heavier stuff, I imagine you shouldn’t want these acts to get redefined, because they’ll lose their power to signal degradation and get you off.

The problem with a lot of discourse about sexual practices is that it’s become this common assumption that porn is somehow the gold standard of sex positivity. But the problem with that is that porn actually relies a lot on sex negativity as a selling point. Certainly not all, etc. But the facial is straight out of a very, very common sexual fantasy peddled in porn, and it’s actually built along the same narrative as arguments for restricting women’s reproductive rights. Which is: Here is this sexual woman (the actress in the porn). She is a dirty, filthy whore for letting men “use” her for sex. And she deserves to be degraded and punished. So when you’re done getting off with her body, you seal the deal by ejaculating in her face. Or, I’ve seen porn where they throw money at her, another act that has exactly one meaning in our culture. Porn directors know that most of the audience is sexist and thinks sexual women are slutty, and they tailor their product to these conservative views of female sexuality. It’s the same reason that a lot of very conservative cultures turn a blind eye to sex trafficking, because they see no real problem with abusing women that are already “ruined”.

I think there’s a lot of potential value in people, who have eroticized shame and degradation, owning that and acting it out in consensual contexts where everyone is having a blast with it. But only if you’re clear and accurate about what’s going on, and you own it. Because if you don’t, other people could get hurt. Specifically, I noted in comments at Jessica’s blog that if you build up the facial as a non-degrading act with this guy because you both get off on it, and then he moves on—it happens!—he’s got a tool to bully another woman who may not enjoy being degraded. If everyone admits that it’s done to be degrading, then a woman can say, “Hey, I don’t like being degraded,” and no harm, no foul. But if a dude says, “Hey, this isn’t degrading, look my last girlfriend/this feminist blogger/etc. agrees,” then he’s pulled the “you’re a prude card” and could shame her into doing it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know we’re all supposed to respect and establish boundaries blah blah blah. But it’s easier to do so if everyone at the table is intellectually honest about emotions and meanings. If your boundary is not being degraded, it’s harder to maintain it if people around your are denying that X is degrading. This isn’t a small thing, especially when you consider how many women have sexual assault in their histories. I know for me that makes really getting off on serious degradation permanently unlikely. But I could also see easily how, when I was younger, I could have been bullied with the it’s-not-degrading card, and then feel profoundly hurt afterwards, but unable to articulate why, because that would just be returning to the “but it’s not degrading!” fight. Better just to admit that it’s supposed to be degrading. Consent is not meaningful if someone doesn’t have full information.

In fact, I’d say that Jessica even demonstrated the problem in the real world. Because she’s rationalized the facial as non-degrading, then she felt like it was okay to tell women that it was a minimum requirement of good girlfriendhood. That bothered me. Not because I feel pressured—I’m too old to take that sort of thing seriously, and if I ever have my doubts, I just ask the one person that actually has any stake in how I am as a girlfriend. But I can imagine a lot of women would. Which is too bad, because I don’t generally think it’s offensive to write those lists. I’m not going to be upset by someone saying oral sex is standard, or a good faith attempt to get everyone in bed off is standard. I’ll nod vigorously. But when it comes to playing around with degradation and pushing people’s boundaries, that’s more a specialty thing and should be treated as such. We wouldn’t tell men that being routinely degraded in bed is something that’s just part of sex and they’d better get used to it. We’d tell them that if being degraded is their thing, good for them, but find a woman who shares your interests. Women should get the same courtesy.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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