Review: Men and Feminism Panel at Bluestockings Bookstore

Over 60 people turned out for a recent panel discussion entitled “Men and Feminism” at Bluestockings Books.

Shira Tarrant, author of Men and Feminism, When Sex Became Gender and editor of the anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power, introduced the panel at the Oct. 16 event, which dealt with the issue of, in Tarrant’s words, “feminist sex, or how to be sex positive and anti-sexist.”

Sinclair Sexsmith, a sex educator who chronicles her experiences as a “masculine queer feminist sadistic butch top” on her blog sugarbutch.net, read a piece she had written about reconciling her feminist critique with the desire to assume masculine as well as sadistic roles in sex play. She related the story of the first lover she had who asked to be hit, saying she was initially horrified, but that over time she came to realize that “by not trusting what she said, that she wanted to be hit, by wondering if there was something wrong with her for wanting that, I didn’t give her agency.”

She went on to describe the journey from her initial horror to embracing the dynamic and seeing it as a chance to explore the constructed nature of gender roles – “acting out power plays allows us to deconstruct them, to see them as not being set in stone. We’re able to see it as a social construct.”  There was a dated quality to the material (explorations of butch-femme sexuality and BDSM as a tool for exploring gender roles have been in print since at least the 80’s, with the work of Pat Califia and others) and it’s hard to imagine a slap, especially one that’s asked for, engendering terror in even a conscientious feminist.

Audacia Ray, author of Naked on the Internet, and co-founder of Sex Work Awareness, a sex worker advocacy organization, spoke next, reading five vignettes she had written for the evening, in which she related growing up deeply unhappy with her body and not enjoying sex, and finding her worth through sex work. No one told her she was beautiful until a customer did, she told the audience. “I learned my worth through being objectified. I need you to tell me I’m pretty,” she went on to say about nude modeling, which allows her to “feels here and real, through the eyes of someone else.”

While sexual self-expression is a common feminist ideal, a woman finding her self-worth through the male gaze has troubling implications. One wonders how women can ever achieve full three dimensional personhood when men are given the message, even by some feminists, that women enjoy being objectified and see it as a path to authentic power. If men are led to believe that a woman’s highest aspiration is to be considered beautiful and fuckworthy, it takes away from more substantial inputs that women have to make to society, other than being the object of male sexual desire.

Shira Tarrant offered the most substantive comments of the evening, on the importance of men to the feminist movement and masculinity’s place as part of the feminist dialogue. She outlined the ways that hyper masculinity limits men; the constraints on male behavior by the perpetuation of “the nice guys finish last” motif, and invoked bell hooks in gently chastising women for falling for the bad boy type something she claims to be guilty of in the book’s preface. She quotes Michael Kimmel, editor of Men and Masculinities, spokesperson for NOMAS (The National Organization For Men Against Sexism) and the author of Guyland – “fear and shame are at the center of men’s identity. Men internalize male gender rules to avoid shame.”

Pornography is a flashpoint for people discussing how to remain sex positive in the face of sexist sexual material, as well it should be. As Tarrant pointed out, mainstream pornography reinforces male privilege – it focuses on things being done to women, and women pleasing others. Cruelty and degradation are a central theme. “This is a political issue,” says Tarrant, but one that people excuse and take off the table, waving it and its greater implications away as being “just fantasy” and therefore not problematic. “Arguing that porn is just fantasy is like saying that advertisements don’t affect our buying habits, or that the news doesn’t affect how we see the world,” says Tarrant. Compounding the problem is the prevalence of porn culture in the mainstream. “It’s where people are getting most of their information about sex and what sex should look like, and it shows the same degrading tropes over and over.”

Next to speak was Abiola Abrams, TV personality and director of the feminist erotica film Afrodite Superstar, reading a piece she wrote for the Dirty Words Encyclopedia of Sex, on the word ‘slut’, which she says growing up was“ the worst thing a woman could be called.” One of only a few African-Americans in an exclusive all girls high school, she was lectured by her parents and teachers that her actions, including her sexual conduct, would speak for her race, that she “bore the burden of representation for all African-Americans” “I felt like my social life could set back the Civil Rights movement” she said laughing, and as a result was one of “the finger wagging moral police. I was jealous of the sluts. They seemed so much freer.”

In the follow up discussion to the readings, Abrams and others talked about the implications of the phrase “losing your virginity,” suggesting instead the using “making your sexual debut” to undermine the economic aspect – that once you’ve lost your hymen your worth as a woman is less. The recent Yes Means Yes anthology edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman explores the language around rape and virginity and the problems that arise from a “commodity model” for sex. It advocates consent as not merely the absence of “no,” but enthusiastic participation.