Whose Slut?

The female body has always been associated with sex, ensuring that even straight women find images of women sexy. Natasha Forrest explains why censorship is not the answer and how objectification is not necessarily a bad thing

, 16 July 2002

One of my first sexual memories involves masturbating over an article about female strippers in one of my sister’s copies of Cosmopolitan magazine. After a few months of wondering whether I was a lesbian, I decided I wasn’t and tried to put the incident behind me. However, over the last couple of years I’ve finally been able to accept that, instead of the Brad and Leonardo pin-ups which are marketed at straight girls like me, what really turns me on are Maxim, FHM and Britney Spears videos. What’s more, I’m beginning to think I’m not alone.

Since the beginning of time, the female body has been associated with sex

By now it seems clear that the naive concept ‘all’s fair in love and porn’ blatantly isn’t true. Despite attempts to sell pornographic images of men to women as a great equalizer, women still prefer their magazines populated with sexy women. This makes sense to me; since the beginning of time, the female body has been associated with sex. The objectified woman, as seen through the eyes of heterosexual man, has come to symbolise sex, so that, as straight women, we are stimulated when we see a sexy woman, although she is not usually the object of our lust. Because women’s woman-oriented fantasies are not yet widely discussed or accepted, however, they are usually accompanied by feelings of jealousy, impotence and confusion.

So why have feminists failed to adequately and, more important, positively, theorise the complex relationship between female sexualisation and sexuality? While the mainstream media recognise and exploit out fascination with women’s bodies, feminists have traditionally seen it as a purely negative phenomenon, preventing us from achieving true liberation. But is the deeply ingrained cultural association between women and sex something we should necessarily try to change, if that were even plausible? Or is it, rather, something we should accept, reclaim and use to further liberate ourselves from our society’s oppressive sex taboo?

The traditional feminist response to the fact that straight women clearly demand and enjoy images of sexy women has been that we have internalised the patriarchal values which oppress us and lost sight of our own sexuality along the way. I agree that female sexualisation has been fundamentally affected by its situation in a male-dominated culture. However I have a problem with solutions which propose either censorship or a temporary abstinence from sexual relations with men in an attempt to overthrow the social order and rediscover our mysterious sexuality.

The general idea that objectification of women = bad is a given in much feminist discussion

While, of course, it is only the extremists who propose such drastic measures, the general idea that objectification of women = bad is a given in much feminist discussion. What some of these feminists fail to acknowledge is that self-objectification is an integral part of female heterosexuality. Whether it be shopping for underwear or dancing at a club, most of us get a thrill at the thought of being desired by men. Taking it a step further, how many of us have fantasised about being strippers or whores? We feel guilty, yes, but is that because we feel we’re betraying feminism, or is it simply the age-old ‘nice girls don’t do that’ set of morals which strives to keep our sexuality at bay?

The notion that a sexualised woman is degrading to women derives from the assumption that she is being sexualised by men, for men. Historically, this has usually been the case, and the misogynistic religious moralists, whose views are often reflected in pop culture, reinforce this power dynamic at every opportunity. TV stations and magazines use women’s bodies to increase ratings and sell products while taking a moralising or patronising stance on those who do, i.e. strippers and prostitutes. While overgrown ‘virgins’ like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson continue to pose for men’s magazines in their underwear and simultaneously deny any interest in sex, female sexualisation and sexuality remain firmly divided and the sexualised woman is disempowered.

Sexualisation can be just as fun and empowering for the ones being watched as for the ones watching

In recent years, women have begun to reclaim their sexualisation. From women making their own porn films to the growing number of feminist strippers who freely admit they get a kick out of displaying their bodies, we are slowly beginning to show that sexualisation can be just as fun and empowering for the ones being watched as for the ones watching. We are even beginning to reclaim sexist insults; the feminist punk bands of the 90s, collectively known as the Riot Grrrls, challenged traditional interpretations of the word ‘slut’ when they wrote it on their own bodies, and pop icons like Courtney Love and Madonna deliberately sexualise themselves to play with and subvert society’s virgin/whore complex. Anti-porn advocates may be searching for a more ‘authentic’ sexuality but, without a clearer idea of what this might be, their cries of ‘degrading to women’ are merely adding to the common assumption that any woman who enjoys the male gaze must be either a victim or a slut.

The pleasure we derive from displaying our bodies ‘for’ men may have its roots in male domination but the more we show that we like it too, the more that power dynamic is challenged and the fewer rights men can assume over our bodies. There are already some places where a girl can dress and act as sexy as she likes without having to tolerate any of the ‘I own you’ stares or humiliating gropings which usually accompany such behaviour. I’m talking about progressive urban neighbourhoods and mixed sexuality clubs, where a high percentage of the population are gay or bisexual and there is a blissful ambiguity about who any given person is displaying her or his body for. Along with this ambiguity comes the liberation of sexiness from society’s ruthless beauty standards, which, like any other set of standards, lose their hold over us when we can no longer assume everyone is living by them. In these environments, sexuality ceases to be a matter of self-conscious enslavement to elitest ideals and, instead, becomes more of a game and a chance to display style and uniqueness.

Imagine a world in which a provocatively dressed woman of any shape or size can walk down the high street of a small town in broad daylight without attracting any negative attention. Of course, it will be a while before this form of heaven spreads to the rest of the cities, let alone the rest of the world, but, historically speaking, radical social movements always start in the coolest of cool neighbourhoods and travel outwards fairly quickly. I certainly hold out a lot more hope for this than for the success of a campaign to try and force men to look the other way out of some sort of male guilt or ‘respect for women’.

Our world developed as a patriarchy, and women were relegated to the realm of sex objects

Our world developed as a patriarchy and, as such, women were relegated to the realm of sex objects, a fact which has disadvantaged our sex for millenia and continues to do so. Some feminists believe we can go back and change our history so women will no longer have to bear this association. I believe that any attempt to do so will further alienate the majority of women from the cause and ultimately be met with overwhelming resistence, if not from the powers that be then from our own sexuality.

There are plenty of reasons to hate the way our current culture sexualises women, but as society’s moralistic attitude towards sex changes, some women are beginning to explore alternative perspectives and to discover the potential of our predicament. There really are a lot of options open to straight women with woman-oriented fantasies if we continue to destabalise the prevailing assumption that a sexy woman is for men only. Without this disempowering concept, we would be able to take guilt-free pleasure in men taking pleasure in us, as well as taking pleasure in other women, hopefully without the confusing, negative feelings which usually accompany such pleasures.

So, whether it be watching or making porn films, bisexual experimentation, stripping or just broadening our range of heterosexual fantasies, I have faith that accepting whatever strange desires our patriarchal culture has planted in us will do nothing but good for our increased liberation from the patriarchy itself. After all, it was through male guilt and fear of sexuality that ours was repressed in the first place. Let’s not do the same to ourselves.

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