It’s an inarguable fact of life that, in many areas of popular culture, women’s bodies are presented in a heavily sexualised way. Magazine covers, lads mags, advertisements, pornography and even fashion editorials; no matter your opinion of the phenomenon, sexualised imagery of women is hard to escape in 2014.
What can be more difficult to find, however, are healthy attitudes to genuinely autonomous expressions of sexuality. Whether it’s attitudes to casual sex, to women who act in porn or to women who perform other forms of sex work, the male gaze is often not only consumptive but judgemental to boot. Women engaging in any of these areas are dismissed as “sluts” and “whores” or thought of as “dirty”. The message is clear; we want to fuck you, but we don’t respect you. Or, in the words of a sex worker I follow on Tumblr: “you’ll jack off with your left hand and point with your right”.
This can be very clearly illustrated in the recent case of the “Duke Porn Star”, an American college student whose work in adult film was “exposed” by a fellow student. The surrounding furore, as well as the death threats and abuse she’s received, were explained in her words here. It’s pretty shocking (but sadly, unsurprising). Casual sex is seen in much the same way. Many women I know have been criticised, mocked or judged for their sexual expression - sometimes even during a sex act! If your number of sexual partners is deemed too high, that’s a crime too; even if the person judging you has themselves contributed to that number! Stripping faces a similar fate; I’ve heard friends of mine say they’d happily visit a strip club and pay for a lapdance but would “never” date a stripper. Hello, cognitive dissonance!
What does it say, then, that genuine sexual autonomy is looked down on? It says that women are still expected to be passive receptacles. That sex, for women, is still totally performative; we’re expected to engage in sexual behaviour, but heaven forbid we actually enjoy it. And don’t even THINK about seeking it out yourself, or seeking a career in the sex industry; even when you talk eloquently about your choices they’re still deemed to be the wrong ones. You must be defective, or damaged, or have experienced some kind of trauma (the “stupid little girl who doesn’t understand her actions” as Belle Knox was told). There’s no way that a woman can enjoy sex as freely and self-indulgently as a man!
If you have a political or personal problem with promiscuity, porn or sex work, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t want to engage in that behaviour yourself, that’s also fine. What isn’t okay, though, is using the objectification of women for your own ends and then denigrating the women who are providing you with pleasure. The bottom line is this: if you disdain or vilify sexual autonomy, you don’t deserve to benefit from it.