Response to ‘Whose Slut?’

Natasha Forrest's article "Whose Slut?" in The F-Word in July prompted many responses - probably the most on one specific article this site has ever had. Here are the comments received and below, Natasha responds.

, 16 August 2002

From Sally

Grrrrrr!

I’m BORED of this debate about how post-something-or-other women can express themselves sexually in 1001 ways, most of them ‘ironic’ (and if you ask me there’s nothing less sexy than irony – in this context it’s another word for pretending to enjoy yourself).

I’m bored to vomiting point of playing around with the shall-I-shan’t-I-objectify-myself crap. In fact, I think I won’t. Allowing myself to decide this has in fact made me BETTER able to fancy women because if I stop objectifying myself I am less inclined to objectify other women and, with beauty-myth blinkers removed, I find women look better.

Which leaves me with two major points yet unmentioned (and plenty others that I shall bite back in the interests of brevity). MALE BEAUTY DOESN’T GET ENOUGH ATTENTION and I can’t see how Natasha’s piece addresses this. Let’s have some genuinely new energy, and let men play around with THEIR sexuality in the public eye more often. I’d be prepared to give my undivided attention to any truly creative efforts in that direction.

And the other point was, do we women ever get a fucking day off from being sexy, thinking about female sexiness, having sex…It’s bloody slave labour! Being a rounded individual means this but also means so much more. And that’s all for now.

By the way thanks to Natasha for writing the piece even if I find much in it to disagree with, cause the site wouldn’t exist without the contributors and the site is great! (I really appreciate being provoked into letting off this sort of steam in a context where pertinent debate is going on and feedback is welcomed so I really value the articles on the site that I disagree with as well!)

From Jamie

Firstly I want to say I love your website & your articles. You articulate so many issues that stay on my mind.

In response to Natasha Forrest’s article “Whose slut”, I have a problem with the paragraph about our world developing as a patriarchy. Certainly it is today and (in the west and east) this is the prevailing attitude. But most primitive peoples(ha!) centred their beliefs around a mother goddess, or great mother who was a emblem of fertility, sex and life. The most enlightened cultures such as Mayan or Indian (building great cities whilst Europe floundered in the dark ages) held these beliefs. Women as sexual objects has in many ways been degrading (and continues to be so for women today)but also allowed for a certain amount of power. The courtesan or concubine was often the richest and most politically powerful of the whole court.

Biologically it is natural and unsurprising for women to desire women, when the first sight that any human infant sees is the breast. And it is the first sight that its eyes can focus on,(rather than faces).

Sorry just thought I should add that. Keep up the great work, you rock!

From Gandalf

I feel I must write in about the article on the fword “Whose slut?”.

This is mainly because I found most of the points made within it either objectional or just banal. Reading the first quote “from the beginning of time the female body has been associated with sex” instanlty caused an eyebrow to raise. Although it is obviously true , as it is hard to imagine any sex taking place without a body of some sort I don’t feel it is the correct direction to be taking. When we reduce a person to a mere object we take away their humanity. We strip them of the respect that they should be afforded. Even I as a single man cannot agree with 100 women being slapped on my front lawn naked for me to wake up to every morning.

Apart from the cold they would suffer there are the immense theorectical and social dangers that exist here. Racism stems from coming to see some subset of the human race as valueless, unwanted or threatening for whatever reasons. Sexism is a subset of this in my opinion. By encouraging people to see women as objects you encourage them to be devalued. It was with total shock that I read the home office statistics that 5% of women can expect to be raped (most shockingly raped by somebody they know). If we come to see sex as a right, as something we deserve to treat ourselves to, won’t this just increase the figure?

Putting it simply I agree with the statement that the general objectification of women (and indeed men) is a bad thing. If anyone really believes that by writing slut across their own forehead they are welcome to, I could do with a bit of amusement, but I wouldn’t see it as a positive step. I have never fantasised about being a stripper or a whore, I don’t want to be an object. I expect to be seen as a person. I expect most women want the same thing too.

From Caroline

Re: feature article (Whose Slut?)

Although I can see where this person is coming from, the article itself made me kinda sad. Perhaps at 18 im still an idealist…

From Caroline Grimshaw

I am so delighted to find a web site that deals with feminist issues in the UK. I previously thought that it must only be in the US that women took the time to address their feelings or concerns about the challenges and issues faced by women in this century.

I found the article “Whose Slut” fascinating. I have watched the number of semi-naked or naked models in newspapers and magazines grow out of all proportion. I have often thought that this can only be negative in terms of the public, and more particularly, the male perception of women. As a professional woman I do not want the media representation of my gender to beabout bare breasts and pouting lips. I have found the most frustrating thing to be that other women are seemingly oblivious to this, and to find that other women have the same concerns as me is a great sanity check. Finding an article that is so honestly and well written is not only a huge relief and provides much food for thought

For the main part I don’t agree with the article. I think that women can be objects of desire and sexuality without exposing themselves entirely. I think that if the media was run by women we would be more than happy for women to be shown on the front cover of magazines or in the paper in their full beautiful and sexual glory, but without stepping across the line and revealing them naked. I believe that this is where men have taken control for the benefit of the male market.

By saying that we should accept this latest trend and regard it as empowering I think that we are denying that, were we to have equality and be in control of how women are portrayed and pictured in the media, we would not want this level of exposure. I am more than happy for pornography to exist (and to be shared and read by women), but believe that it should stay on the top shelf, rather than something which is seen on every news stand and on every family table in the country. What woman wants her children to grow up surrounded by this image of women?

If it was suggested that the naked male was to be spread all over the tabloids and magazines, with women discussing their anatomy and attributes openly, men would become hugely insecure. Why would anyone be surprised that young girls now hanker over breast enlargements, when the boys (and later men) she is surrounded by find it only too natural to stare at large breasts in every newspaper and this is the subject of open discourse? Women’s attitudes are a product of their environment and it is, I believe, unacceptable that we should be surrounded every day by male generated images of women that make us feel inadequate and objectified.

I look forward to reading other people’s comments on Natasha Forrest’s article I can’t tell you how pleased I still am to find this opportunity to discover other views on this subject!

From missmogga

god, this article was really depressing and ill thought out, doubtless from some middle class feminist whose never been near a porno shoot or who fails to get the rality of the poverty trap for many women as she wanks away, lets all consume and objectify?

no, lets not, objectification isn’t part of my reality nor is cosmo,cosmopolitan, fuck what glossy little world do you live in, certainly not one where you get a cock rammed down your throat and told to take it, like some girls i know just to make rent.

i think you think your being really radical, while you wank, but your adding to peopl’es misery,i don’t want to be objectified by you or any other ignorant sell out, if you want porn go through it and then tell me how fuckin liberated you feel does that turn you on?

From Kristin Aune

Hi Natasha,

I wanted to say hello and respond to your F word article. I thought it was a good counter-balance to my piece about Big Brother and the pressure placed on women to have sexual relationships!

First (to get it out of the way) my negative comment: I found it impossible to personally accept your idea that liberation comes from ‘accepting whatever strange desires our partriarchal culture has put in us’. Isn’t that rather like saying ‘accept the fact that your boyfriend beats you up’?! I’ve always been one for challenging what culture implants in you, for relearning patterns we’ve been socialised into, so this goes against the grain for me. Yes, granted even feminists have (e.g.) rape fantasies, but I’d argue that we lose a lot more by keeping them than we gain (in having an orgasm more quickly or whatever).

Now my positive comment: I found it very interesting and helpful that you raised the issue of being turned on by images of sexualised women but NOT being lesbian/bisexual. I found this in some ways a little hard to understand…being turned on by someone generally means you want to have sex with them. Or at least this is the way we’ve traditionally thought about it. I suppose it’s not really the case though – which of us would really want to enact many of our fantasies… It seems to me also that a lesbian critique of your piece would be to say that a straight woman who’s turned on by women but says she doesn’t want to have sex with them is denying her lesbian inclinations… I’m not saying I think this, just floating it as an idea.

I’m still thinking about these issues anyway, and found your piece a very helpful and challenging way of doing so, so thanks!

Natasha responds

First of all, thanks to everyone who responded to my article. It’s really encouraging to know people are reading and thinking about what I wrote, even if you don’t all agree with me!

The main point I want to make in response to your comments is that my article was not intended as approval of the way women are objectified in current society, but rather as a call for change; a vision of a less sexist future in which women aren’t constantly reminded of their sex and men no longer assume rights over our bodies. In contrast to the traditional feminist ideology of de-conditioning and re-learning sexuality, however, I am proposing an alternative way of working towards that future.

I am in total agreement with Kristin on the importance of challenging what our culture teaches us. Sexism, just like all the other ‘ism’s, is clearly an oppressive and wholly negative force, against which women have fought and must continue to fight. On the other hand, sexual objectification of women is more complicated because it is not ONLY negative and oppressive – it can also be fun, sexy and empowering.

If women can admit that they like SOME aspects of objectification then we can begin to control it ourselves, by using the aspects we like (dancing; dressing up; role play games, etc.)and fighting against the aspects we don’t like (pressure to be feminine/sexy if or when we don’t feel like it; oppressive beauty standards; eating disorders; the stigma and often dangerous conditions surrounding sex work; sexual harrassment; violent sexual crimes, etc.). With increased power to challenge these things, it goes without saying that what we stand to gain is a lot more than just “having an orgasm more quickly”.

In addition to being more positive and appealing than the traditional feminist ideology,this is also the clearest and most practical path to take. Other than covering up and avoiding sex with men, the alternative options are still unclear to me and I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of a ‘genuine’ female sexuality. I am sceptical about Sally’s claim to have made a conscious decision not to objectify herself and her consequent ability to fancy women “with beauty-myth blinkers removed”. If only it were that easy. If feminists who have been consciously trying to re-condition themselves for decades are still having rape fantasies, while the majority of women are still turned off by feminism’s unsexy image, something tells me it’s time to try Plan B.

Now that I’ve re-emphasized my main point, which I think deals with quite a few of the complaints made, I’ll address a few of your comments individually.

I really liked Sally’s comment about how there isn’t enough creativity surrounding male sexuality and beauty. I think the places where sexuality is most androgynous are mixed sexuality environments since, at the moment, gay men are more into expressing their sexuality creatively than straight men. Maybe, as homosexuality becomes more integrated into mainstream society and gender becomes more blurred and flexible, straight men will catch on too and make it fairer all round!

This brings me to one of Gandalf’s remarks: “I have never fantasised about being a stripper or a whore. I don’t want to be an object. I expect to be seen as a person. I expect most women want the same thing too.” I find such comments dangerously reminiscent of the anti-feminist, anti-affirmative action and anti-gay rights supporters who want us all to ‘just treat each other as people’. In fact, there are numerous differences among ‘people’, one being that women and gay men are generally more into self-objectification that straight men like the author (judging from context). What I want to know is why mind and body have to be so mutually exclusive and, more pertinently in this case, why ‘mind’ is continually attributed more value, especially when straight men are the minority.

Having said that, I am all in favour of male feminists and don’t mean to discourage them from contributing to feminist debates…just as long as they pay attention to where women are coming from!

Moving on, I found Caroline G’s comments slightly naive. By arguing that women can be objects of desire “without exposing themselves entirely” and that porn is OK but “should stay on the top shelf” she seems to be reinforcing the ‘nice girls don’t do that’ double standard which is used to control our sexuality. I’m sure Britney Spears’ managers would go along with that line of thought. (see my Pop Idol review for more on that subject)

I share her concern about young girls developing insecurities as a result of being surrounded by harmful images of women, but I actually think it’s more harmful to try and protect children from sex – the more of a taboo it is, the more powerful it becomes. Also, by wrapping middle class girls in cotton wool we are further stigmatising their working class contemporaries who, as missmogga puts it, have to “get a cock rammed down [their] throat and told to take it…just to make rent”. Instead I believe we should educate kids openly about sex and teach them to see through hypocrisy, challenge double standards and read images critically so they can make informed decisions about what they want to do with their bodies.

Sorry not to be able to respond to every single point made but I hope you all feel I’ve addressed the main issues. Like Caroline, I see myself as an idealist; my vision of a less sexist world is far from reality and will continue to be so until more people subscribe to feminism. Moreover, I don’t think feminists are winning any new supporters by continuing to try and deny women (and men) their sexuality. I’m not saying accept it and live with it; I’m saying accept it, keep the bits you like and fight against the bits you hate.

As for the 100 naked women being slapped on somebody’s front lawn, I’m not sure how that relates to my article but I quite agree with Gandalf that it’s probably a bad idea.

Thanks again to everyone who responded – I’d be happy to hear any further thoughts on the issue. And, of course, thanks again to Catherine for the fantastic F Word!

Catherine Redfern responds

I thought I’d add my personal views on this article – I didn’t mean to write so much but I’m afraid once I got started I couldn’t stop! Firstly I think it’s very important that issues like this are discussed and that we take the time to listen to each other’s views and share opinions. I am very proud to have had Natasha’s thoughtful and honest article on The F-Word, and I am also proud to have read some of the interesting comments that have been received in response.

Various things I’ve read or seen recently have reminded me of the issues Natasha discussed in her article. For example, a recent issue of Cosmo featured an article about the rise in straight women (real lesbians don’t exist in Cosmo’s world, unless they’re part of a titilating one-night-stand confession story) going to strip clubs and paying for lap dances from other women. Madonna’s “Music” video showed her cartoon persona in a pole-dancing club, surrounded by the kind of women who’d normally be seen adorning the arms of a male rap star. Zoe Ball and Jordan have been spotted enjoying lap-dances. A strip club in London apparently now has a women-only night once a month.

Some women see this as liberating and fantastic, others see it as worrying and confusing. How does feminism cope with the idea that women not only want to see male strippers, but now they want to watch female strippers too? What about the man who buys his girlfriend a lap-dance for her birthday? Is this equality or just the logical conclusion of laddette-ism: exploitation of women? Are these women (are we) finding enjoyment in other women’s bodies because it is liberating, because we are finally enjoying and celebrating the female form? Or are they (are we) simply tapping into a kind of pseudo-male power, showing that we have arrived, that we’re ‘cool’ because we can be like men, even to the extent of thinking Spearmint Rhino is a great venue for a girls night out?

And in what context is the enjoyment of women’s bodies okay – does it make a difference if it involves a transaction of money? What about an belly-dancer, dancing at a women-only meeting? What about a stripper at a lesbian club?

“Whose Slut?” looked at some very interesting issues. Firstly, the question of why women of all sexualities find enjoyment in looking at other women. We’ve known for a long time that it’s women who are just as guilty as men (if not more) for perpetuating the beauty myth culture; that men frequently don’t care if you’re wearing mascara and half the time can’t even tell; that it’s women who notice what women are wearing and how they’re wearing it, whether she’s put on weight or lost it, whether she’s cut her hair or bought new shoes. Anyone who’s been to a girl’s school will know that the meticulous fashion rules enforced there were not dictated on a daily level by men or boys.

But why is it be that women are so obsessed with women? On one level, as Jamie commented above, of course women are going to be interested in other women, it’s perfectly logical. We relate to women, we feel a connection with them because we are women. As girls we scribbled pictures of glamorous women, not men. We looked at the women we saw in the media as models of what we were going to become. But there are other explanations for this phenomenon: a writer in a recent issue of Bitch magazine postulated that the reason women are like this is because there are a hell of a lot more in-denial lesbians out there than people imagine (an argument which Kristin Aune aluded to). Natasha’s article, as I understand it, asks whether it is in fact the result of centuries of emphasis on women as sex objects, deeply ingrained into our brains. Mainstream culture has meant that sex for women has become all about being desirable to men, and therefore women cannot be blamed if they get some kind of vicarious sexual thrill out of looking at other women.

A tv programme in Britain this year called “the truth about lesbian sex” reported on a study which supposedly demonstrated that heterosexual women are almost as aroused by gay(female) porn as straight porn. Straight men on the other hand, were hardly aroused at all by the gay(male) porn. The programme viewed this as cast-iron evidence that women were ‘naturally’ more bi-sexual than men (of course, we could argue for days about that conclusion). But assuming the study was accurate, why is it that women are the ones who are seen as having an unusual response here, deviating somehow from the ‘norm’? Concluding that women are natually more bisexual than men ignores the question of whether the male response demonstrated in the study was ‘natural’ and ‘the norm’.

Could it be that it is the male response which is unusual and repressed – because culture doesn’t allow them to even comtemplate admitting to themselves or anyone else that they might like looking at other men? In this culture, it is impossible, absolutely unthinkable, for men of all sexualities to find enjoyment in male bodies. Just think about it. We live in a world where mainstream women’s magazines – which are unashamedly aimed at heterosexual women – include articles on women who’ve paid for sex with women, on women who go to strip clubs, and regular ‘I slept with a woman’ confessions. Admittedly, these confessions inevitably end with a blatant disclaimer stressing the confessor’s heterosexuality, so I’m not trying to argue that lesbianism has become mainstream. But just imagine if Loaded or FHM were featuring articles like this about men – aimed at straight men? Or imagine a world in which straight men went to watch male strippers???

But men do find enojyment in looking at other men. If they didn’t, why would the ‘money shot’ exist in straight porn if its not men finding sexual enjoyment in other men’s bodies? And just look at the popularity of football – perhaps the only sanctioned space in society where hundreds of men can collectively worship the very undiluted essence of male physicality and leap up and down and hug. In the book ‘Stiffed’, Susan Faludi wrote about an all-male military school which was notoriously hostile to attempts to allow women to join. She found that they wanted to keep outsiders from discovering and interrupting their intimacy and dependency on each other, frequently expressed in “physical and sensual, though not necessarily sexual” ways.

There was a second question which “Whose Slut?” raised for me. If we accept Natasha’s argument that women find enjoyment in looking at women and that this should not be repressed but accepted, then we must ask what kind of women do we like looking at? Is it the same as the mainstream? Are we focusing on the beauty myth clones, the siliconed, dyed, shaven, painted, caucasian, blonde, thin, high-heeled, strapped-up, airbrushed types – the Britney Spears of this world? Is it possible to enjoy being desired, or indeed to look at other women, without perpetuating the fascist beauty standards that bombard us every day of our lives? Can we redfine the meaning of ‘sexy’? I’ve rambled off the point, but I hope you’ll forgive me since this debate has brought up some many different issues and thoughts.

These kind of arguments about sex and porn caused massive splits and much bitterness and bad feeling amongst second wave feminists. I am hopeful that we can take on board the lessons of the past, and ensure that whichever side of the issue you are on, we can at least listen to each other, share our views, and evolve.

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