A lot of brainpower has gone into dissecting whether Miley Cyrus is sexually empowered or not.
Wow, she's really getting, er, intimate with that wrecking ball. Yeah, but that's her choice as a liberated woman! Nuh-uh *finger wags*. The male puppeteers controlling showbiz know sex sells. Oh puh-lease -- she's totally giving the foam finger to patriarchy!
As Miley herself sings, round and round and away we go.
Sorry to be a buzzkill, but there's only one person who can decide whether Miley has a healthy relationship with sexuality: the woman herself. And though she certainly is vocal about being in control, the 20-year-old who grew up in the spotlight is still probably figuring that one out: on her shrink's chair, between the sheets, over phone calls with friends and yes, on the world stage.
When she's older, Miley might regret an outfit or two and wish she could take back a few licks (please tell me that sledgehammer was sterilized). Or maybe she will see herself as someone who always performed with self-respect and sexual confidence. As the saying should go: time, not more blog posts, will tell.
Most feminists unfortunately don't have the patience. The movement has a nasty habit of acting like a doctor with a prescription for sexual empowerment (thanks Sinead, but I'm opting for alternative medicine). To apply one set of rules all women should follow is to treat us as a homogeneous group and ignores feminism's top accomplishment: choice.
What constitutes sexual empowerment, feeling good about sex without having it define you entirely, is a spectrum, not a math formula. Our job, our hard-earned right, is to find out where we fit. What's empowering for Miley Cyrus -- a woman who has chosen to perform in front of millions of people for a living -- is different from what's empowering for me -- a woman who has chosen to sit behind a computer screen for a living. Yet people still insist on categorizing our behaviour by the same standards of right or wrong.
As a result, the conversation about female empowerment is turning into a virtual, and sometimes literal, yelling match. First-wave feminists chide their successors for confusing objectification with liberation (hi, mom). Women turn their own sexual hang-ups into doctrines others should follow. But by insisting there's a band-aid solution to healthy sexuality, we simply cover up our individual wounds rather than trying to heal them. The trouble is, judging others is always easier than judging ourselves.
Though we're comfortable watching sex on screens and hearing about it in songs, we're not so comfortable making it personal. Despite studies that show communication is key to a fulfilling sex life, many of us are reluctant to say what we want. Our children don't want to talk either: A recent Planned Parenthood survey found only 50 per cent of teens felt comfortable speaking with mom or dad about sex, even though sexual self-esteem issues crop up in girls as early as age 10. Not even our doctors provide a safe space. A University of Chicago Medicine study found less than 14 per cent of the surveyed gynecologists broached the topic of sexual pleasure with their patients. Yet we have plenty to discuss.
Almost 100 per cent of women admit to having at least one "I hate my body" moment each day. More than 30 per cent of women struggle with sexual dysfunction. More than half of women under 60 have a low sex drive. A quarter of those women are unable to orgasm. Feeling empowered yet?
The idea that we're all supposed to enjoy a certain kind of sexuality isn't helping women or men to speak up. Science has shown some people are biologically more sexual than others, and that many stereotypes we've always believed about women, such as that they need an emotional connection for arousal and want only one partner, are not true. Among my own group of friends there is variance. Some of us feel empowered in monogamous relationships. Some of us like the excitement of a one-night stand or an online hook-up. Some of us prefer traditional sex positions. Others enjoy group sex, kink, role-playing.
So while we can agree on the immorality of rape, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution, are any of us qualified to judge what constitutes sexual empowerment for another woman? And given how much diversity exists within my own social circle, a group of mostly white, middle-class women and men, there's no way I could speak to the sexuality of those from different demographics. Women who choose sex work. Women who are low-income. Women from other cultures. Yet privileged feminists often talk down to these people without understanding the nuances of their experiences.
The most sobering piece I read amid Miley-palooza was by a woman named Kelly Rose Pflug-Back who had been sexually assaulted as a young girl, and had gone on to abuse her body by snorting pills and cutting her arms. For Pflug-Back "sex-positive" feminism, the kind that claims Miley should be able to lick and hump whatever she wants, is offensive because it speaks primarily to "middle-class, mostly white, liberal, cis-women for whom liberation may indeed be a simple matter of achieving greater sexual satisfaction ..."
While Pflug-Back's perspective is invaluable, she also falls victim to the same mentality the feminism she abhors is guilty of. She writes that we should all "begin with the assumption that all female-bodied partners we have ... are survivors." Instead, we should begin with the assumption that we are all different.
Because for some women, Miley's abrasive sexuality might be extremely empowering, and they should not be robbed of a role model who speaks to their experience because others disapprove. The only person that should fail you on a sexual empowerment exam is yourself. So let's stop grading others for once, and put our bums -- naked or not -- back in the student's seat.
This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.