With the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James -- a book which focuses on the relationship between a recent college graduate, and a young businessman with a sexual penchant for BDSM -- people are asking themselves whether this is a topic that empowers the modern woman, or is a fantasy which promotes their degradation and exploitation.
Are ropes, chains and handcuffs in the bedroom the literal shackles of sexism? Or do they represent an enlightened sense of self and choice amongst modern women?
Should we, as a society, accept this particular fetish as being a powerful tool for women to assert themselves today, or should we stand in opposition to it, and denounce it as not only a patriarchal construct, but a violent and demeaning one as well?
Erika Lust, an award-winning erotic director and writer, and Dawn Hawkins, executive director of Porn Harms and Morality in Media, wrestle over the issue below. Who changes your mind?
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Answering this question is not a matter of delving into the psychology of desire, or the appeal of BDSM. As with all matters of sexuality, so much of understanding the "why" behind sexual practices, orthodox, or otherwise, can be boiled down to simple personal preference. Regardless of what kind of sexual preferences are expressed, a positive portrayal of female sexuality is certainly empowering -- for the individual viewer, and the modern woman alike.
For so long, female sexuality has been closeted, misinterpreted, or just badly projected: the effects of which women feel every day. Relationships, media, social custom, even pornography all shape, excite, and represent sexuality in various ways. If a woman finds something that feels good, and natural for her, she should be congratulated for successfully navigating all of this confusing input society feeds her about sexuality, not condemned, or shamed for it! There has been enormous progress in the acceptance of women's sexuality in a vanilla sense, so why doesn't this extend to the kinkier stuff? Can't we just agree that women getting-off, in whatever form this takes, is a great thing?
There has been a lot of recent media attention regarding BDSM; its portrayal in erotica, and the modern woman's reaction to it. The majority of this coverage seemed to either express surprise that a controversial, sexual subject could be consumed so voraciously by women, or else dissected the relationship between BDSM, and feminism (usually with the conclusion that they are incompatible). The implication here is of course that "modern women" shouldn't be enticed by something that may involve dominant, and submissive roles. But the essence of being a woman in today's society is the ability to exercise choice concerning the direction of her life, and in this case, her sex-life.
Being an intelligent, contemporary woman, and enjoying BDSM in one's private life are not mutually exclusive, nor should they in any way offend feminist sensibilities. The common perception of these practices is that they are harmful to a person's physical, and moral integrity. While this might be true were the acts limited to the realm of unfair treatment, when considered as a temporary exchange of power roles by consenting adults, then there is no integrity lost, and often great pleasure and intimacy are gained. One must also take into consideration that the pleasure gained by this type of sexual practice isn't grounded in simple male-female hierarchy, since the roles are entirely dependent on personality, and not gender.
For many people, the appeal in BDSM is control -- either exercising or relinquishing it. Even if one can't appreciate this in a sexual context, most have revelled in this kind of experience in some way or another: finding control in micro-managing a project at work, or letting it go on the dance floor with a drink after a stressful week. This same sense of regaining, or releasing control is only made taboo due to a sexual component.
If women can feel safe in exploring these kinds roles in the bedroom, especially now that the discourse is more widespread, that speaks volumes about progress in the realm of sexual equality. It takes a lot of trust to enact those kinds of fantasies, regardless of the role, which good BDSM erotica, and porn will demonstrate. At the very least, women can feel empowered in the realization of these fantasies: the recognition of them, exploration, pursuit and pleasure of sexual fulfillment.
The real root of this issue, unfortunately prevalent in so much of the discourse of female sexuality, is shame. Is it taboo for women to speak about sexual preferences? As a general rule, perhaps not, but certainly when speaking about preferences which might be regarded as unorthodox. And if shame is taken out of the equation, there will be no need for women to wonder whether they can be feminists, and enjoy BDSM images, or practices. In utilizing good erotica -- and porn of all varieties -- to further educate and inspire on the subject of female sexuality and its expression, we can only further empower women to enjoy their bodies, and their sex-lives.
This proposition itself is offensive. Why any strong, modern, independent woman would want to acclimate men to viewing violent, humiliating images mostly of women is completely beyond me.
And the mere notion that one finds empowerment in watching others be tortured is, well, let's just say it, disturbing!
First let's describe S&M porn. I will admit that I am not qualified to do so, so here are descriptions from an S&M porn site, Kink.com.
The site advertises that women in its S&M productions are,
"overwhelmed and outnumbered...need to learn a lesson by multiple men... women are bound, whipped, punished, objectified and humiliated. They are immobilized, caged ...tormented beyond all reason...these women have been taught, and trained to submit to male domination, and male authority, and will now be a perfect trained sex slave...girls have their faces, hair and tits drenched, and dripping with piss..." "Girls are also pulled in and out of cages, their tongues clamped, their bodies pinned, and their arms and legs strapped."
The site claims to employ "contraptions used in countries such as China for torture," as well as machines, water, metal, wood, electrodes, hooks, needles, and urination.
Do I need to go further, or is the debate over? Even those supporting a "whatever turns you on" lifestyle should admit that the above is misogyny, rather than empowerment.
I have no doubt there are women "enjoying" S&M porn, but I do doubt that they can convince many that they are empowered by it. In fact, I doubt many can make an argument that any porn is empowering.
Yes, as many argue, pornography has always been around. But due to the prevalence of pornography today, consumers are becoming desensitized to it. They are seeking out harsher, more violent, more degrading, and ever deviant material. As the brain science explains, those who use porn are cultivating a taste for the most deviant, and damaging sexual materials. One is not born with a sexual preference for S&M activities. It is an acquired taste developed after repeated exposure to pornography and, or traumatic life experiences such as violence or sexual abuse, according to psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself. In it, Doidge argues that:
"Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated."
With pornography, in other words, our brain's pleasure system that excites our desires is activated, but users are unable to ever find real satisfaction. This explains why certain people can spend endless hours searching for pornography on the Internet, and why it is increasingly difficult for many to find satisfaction in normal physical sexual relationships. It also explains why the content of pornography in recent years has changed so drastically. Women simply revealing their breasts no longer excite users. The content in pornography is increasingly dominated today by pseudo-child images (women dressed and posed to look younger), and by sadomasochistic themes of forced sex, ejaculations on women's faces, angry anal sex all with the end-goal of humiliating, and objectifying one or more of the participants, usually female.
It is impossible to argue today that the consumption of pornography is a neutral experience. Too much sound research argues otherwise. Porn harms. Pornographers promise healthy pleasure, and relief from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Among the harms now emerging as consequences of pornography are: addiction of both children and adults, exploitation, increased demand for trafficked women and children, a growing demand for child pornography, wider acceptance of sexual violence, rape, broken relationships, insecurity, depression, and even erectile dysfunction.
Pornography devalues women (and men too). Objectification and abuse is never an empowerment. Nor does it matter whether a female is producing, or directing the piece, because abuse is victimization and nothing less. Empowered women are not toys to be used, and abused. Aggression against the women in S&M and mainstream pornography today is the rule, rather than the exception. Some of the most popular acts depicted in porn include vaginal, oral and anal penetration by three or more men at the same time; double anal; double vaginal; a female gagging from having a penis thrust into her throat; and ejaculation in a woman's eyes and mouth, as well as slapping and spitting on women.
Who is empowered by watching such acts? Certainly not the abused women involved.
Author Dr.Gail Dines puts it clearly, "To think that so many men hate women to the degree that they can get aroused by such vile images is quite profound. Pornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy. In nothing else is their hatred of us quite as clear." Why any strong, modern, independent woman would want to fit the porn mold, largely driven by men, is beyond me.
If you disagree with me, your likely argument is that this exploitation and abuse is between two consenting adults, and thus completely justified. This reason is very misleading and demands further explanation. According to feminist activist Maggie Hays, the question of whether women choose to get into pornography must be understood in a broader context beyond their immediate decision to do one project. Nearly all female performers in pornography experienced rape, childhood sexual abuse, and extreme violence before being recruited for porn.
As one prominent psychologist and researcher, Melissa Farley, points out, "such injuries left them with difficulty establishing trusting relationships with others, inadequate skills in establishing personal and sexual boundaries, low self esteem, and a lower than average ability to recognize dangerous cues in relationships." Financial deprivation is another common precursor to entry into the pornography industry brought on by homelessness, unemployment, abandonment, or running away from child abuse.
These women need love and healing, not further abuse by the porn industry, especially the S&M part of that industry.
In conclusion, there is nothing empowering about whips, chains, urination, and the rest. By contributing to the further pornification of our society, the modern woman will not gain power. She would be serving only as an agent to further her own sexual degradation, handing herself on a silver platter to exactly the sort of men who want to use her, abuse her, and take away her power.
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