Ask a Feminist

// 12 July 2008

Answers are provided by regular F Word contributors, and represent only their own potentially fallible opinions. In the spirit of pluralism, we will try and work in more than one response if we can. There is no definitive ‘F Word line’ or ‘feminist line’, and our answers are given in that spirit.

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Dear F-Word,

I’ve been facing something of an ethical dilemma lately, and I was hoping you could offer me some advice. It relates to that always problematic issue of sexuality – more to the point, what is “ok” to find attractive, and what is just degrading.

As a young bisexual feminist, I find the idea of men treating displays of lesbianism as a spectator sport thoroughly enraging. Equally, I hate women being sexualised and de-valued in mainstream society. So here is the problem:

If two non-homosexual men are getting it off – for a bet, a film role, or just public attention, whatever – I think that’s hot! I’ve managed to live with this for a while feeling completely guiltless, telling myself that because I’m a feminist, and because men aren’t sexualised and devalued as routinely as women, that this is ok. But it’s been pointed out recently that my behaviour is actually incredibly hypocritical, as it makes me the same as men who find non-homosexual women together attractive.

In my mind, I’m sure there’s a difference between my feelings and those of That Type of Man. I just can’t quite define what it is – if it even exists at all. Just for the record, I should point out that I don’t actively encourage men to engage in this kind of behaviour, but if it’s there, I’m happy.

Is this wrong of me?

Guilty Mind,


Dear Guilty Mind,

I am personally with you on this matter: there is difference between fancying two heavily-objectified heterosexual people putting on a gay act and two hardly-at-all-objectified people doing the same. I have always been quite annoyed at the portrayal of lesbians as if they exist and have sex only to please heterosexual blokes and assist in their wanking.

So whoever told you that you are hypocritical and that fancying straight blokes getting it off is wrong has either didn’t think much beforehand or is unaware of gender inequality in general, and inequality in visual representation of men and women in particular.

If it was a guy, he might be the type who sees nothing wrong with “girl on girl” action for his entertainment, but dislikes the idea of his own sex being objectified. Objectification belittles, and people understand it almost intuitively. If it was a woman, she might just repeat some commonly held notions.

Women were always discouraged to treat their sexuality like men do theirs. Actively speaking up about what you fancy can still ruffle some feathers, sadly. The problem is not with you but with that person’s response. What does it signify? Does it boil down to the fact that that person is scared by your sexuality and your honesty about what arouses you? Does he or she want you not to talk so openly (and thus appear more “normal” or feminine)? If that’s the case, sod such opinions. People will always employ guilt to silence female sexuality. It is just this person appeals to your feminist views in order to convey the same old message: woman, you are not here to look, you are here to be looked at. When someone makes you uncomfortable, think first where exactly they are coming from. Usually there is no reason not to carry on as you did before

– Irina Lester

Dear Guilty Mind,

If two non-homosexual men are engaged in sexual activity solely for the purpose of public attention or just to prove they can ‘shock’ heterosexual men then yes this is sexual exploitation. Reason is because it is ridiculing homosexuality. The viewers know these sexual acts are not real they are ‘acting’. Homosexuality becomes a parody and similar to pseudo acts of lesbianism becomes a ‘spectator sport’ for male heterosexuals.

Take women who engage in pseudo lesbianism in order to promote themselves as ‘edgy, sexy, risky’. This is not genuine lesbianism but is in fact for the sexual gratification of heterosexual men. The implication is that lesbianism does not exist because all women just need that good ‘old penis thrusting in them again’.

But, if two male actors who declare themselves to be heterosexual and are acting in a serious film wherein they play homosexual roles then depending on how it is treated it is not sexual objectification of men.

But far too many mainstream films and series parody lesbianism and pander to male heterosexual fantasies. Take the L Word series for example. This series was nothing more than a male heterosexual’s sexual fantasy of how lesbian women are supposed to behave and act. The women were sexualised objects whose sole purpose was to titilate male heterosexuals.

There is nothing wrong in viewing two non-homosexual men enacting a homosexual scene if the aim is not to sexually exploit and sexually objectify homosexuality or homosexual men. It is when lesbian sexual acts and homosexual acts are deliberately represented for the sexual titilation of heterosexual men predominantly. Lesbian sex scenes are not primarily for lesbian viewers but are for the male heterosexual.

So, your feeling sexually aroused by scenes of non-homosexual men enacting sexual acts is not wrong in itself. It is when and if you view the males as sexualised objects. They are just sexualised objects, nothing else exists. They aren’t human just sexualised objects. So, if two men are deliberately trying to shock and ridicule homosexuality then

this is wrong because homosexuals are human too. Just as women are not men’s sexualised commodities – that is sexual exploitation.

– Jennifer Drew

Comments From You

Lauren O // Posted 12 July 2008 at 10:53 pm

I am a mostly straight woman who also enjoys watching men make out. The women I have made out with have not been for male spectators, but I have to say I disagree with the views presented here that two women kissing for male spectators is wrong.

First of all, I think we can all agree there is nothing wrong with sexually gratifying men if you are not debasing yourself, and that kissing another woman is certainly not debasing yourself.

Second of all, I don’t think that two non-lesbian women kissing implies that lesbians don’t exist. Anyone with half a brain can figure out that some women who kiss other women do not like men, even if these particular kissing women do like men. When I watch two straight men making out for a bet or whatever, I do not conflate them with actual gay men. I also find it hot when actual gay men kiss, even though I know they’re not doing it for my benefit. I don’t think that arousal is objectifying or harmful; it just exists.

Granted, there are a few dudes who have less than half a brain who might somehow think that because two women make out for them, that all women are making out for them, but that problem lies with the brainless dudes and not with the practice of kissing another woman for the benefit of a man. Likewise, a brainless woman who makes out with another woman at a party might think she understands what it is to be actually gay or bisexual, but again, that would be her fault for being dumb, and not the actual practice’s fault.

If you are kissing another woman as a display for a man, it doesn’t preclude your enjoyment of that kiss. You can be turned on by it, too, while simultaneously turning on the woman you are kissing and the man who is watching. Sounds like a win-win-win situation to me. It’s also not inconceivable that a straight woman who wouldn’t otherwise kiss a woman might expand her mind and become more open to the experiences of real lesbians through kissing another woman.

I even have a female friend who has engaged in sexual activities with women both in private and for men who says that when she started making out with women for men’s benefit, she started worrying less about competing with other women looks-wise, because she understood attraction as more amorphous. Instead of viewing women as a catalog of parts that she had to compare to her own catalog of parts, she started viewing them as people to whom she could be attracted.

Just as gay marriage does not demean straight marriage, I don’t think gay experiences as displays demean actual gay experiences. It is not a bad thing to arouse yourself and your partner (and a bonus third party, too!). As I said earlier, it is not something I have done, but I do not at all feel I have the right to criticize the sexual practices of others, especially when they are not demeaning to anyone. I find BDSM distasteful, but I fully support anyone’s right to participate in it if they like. To me, two women kissing for a man’s pleasure is way less problematic than BDSM, and people who enjoy it are free to do as they please.

Redheadinred // Posted 12 July 2008 at 10:55 pm

I’m not trying to write a response to the letter, but I just want to say what I think.

I believe our response to these things work on two levels, with a passive element and an active element. The fact that someone is aroused by something is not wrong – infact I would argue that it’s never wrong to simply be aroused by something. That is something too abstract to judge. I think it can be a mistake to assume that just because there is a response to certain images, we necessarily think they are okay. Virtually anything of sexual nature can turn you on to some degree. That doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to find fault with it and criticise it. I am turned on by a whole wide range of things, occasionally this includes those type of hip-hop music videos with women in them, even though I think they objectify women and degrade them. I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite.

What turns somone on is a rather passive thing – just like a girl cannot help being turned on by girls if she is a lesbian/bisexual, we don’t choose what we find sexually compelling – but we can choose how we go about it. For instance, I would not buy certain music, whether or not I happened to find the video sexually arousing, if it objectified women, nor something with an ad that did the same. I would argue it’s the active side that counts. To incidentally see men kissing, whether real or not, and finding it sexy is one thing. If someone buys porn with men or women engaged in fake gay/lesbian sex, that is quite another, because it’s actively supporting and perpetuating that kind of exploitation for profit. I do not mind men who find exploitative porn or fake lesbianism sexually arousing. The ones I take issue with are those who actively support, seek out and (most of all) create that sort of material.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 13 July 2008 at 1:20 pm

I think objectification removes people’s humanity, whether they are male or female (although it is predominantly women who are objectified), and this is a problem. I also think you could have an interesting debate over whether men can be objectififed, due to their current position in the social order.

But, I think as a rule of thumb, if you are actively engaging in behaviour that objectifies people, then that is a problem- perhaps the nature of the sex act (as long as it is consensual, non-exploitative etc, etc) is not really the problem.

Tester // Posted 13 July 2008 at 2:54 pm

From the advice: “I have always been quite annoyed at the portrayal of lesbians as if they exist and have sex only to please heterosexual blokes and assist in their wanking.”

There is nothing to be gained by portraying masturbation, or fantasizing, in a sex-negative fashion. What do you propose men fantasize about instead?

Some of us are as disturbed by pseudo-lesbian imagery in corporate marketing as any thoughtful human being.

Redheadinred // Posted 13 July 2008 at 7:10 pm

Tester, I think ‘portrayal’ is the key word. I, at least, have no problem with what people *fantasise* about. In fact, I sometimes think it’s lovely that men might find the idea of two women giving each other pleasure an arousing or pleasing thought. But the portrayal part, when almost everything you see from mainstream media where lesbianism is included portrays their sexuality as somehow ‘not genuine’, but just some sort of show for men – or show for anyone. Think of how they’re portrayed in ‘nuts’ or ‘zoo’. Strangely enough, in these ‘lads mags’ it’s also used as an insult for anyone who challenges the status quo (think of the ‘whingeing dyke in a boat’ thing about Ellen MacArthur), as if they can write you off just by calling you ‘a fat ugly lesbian’.

Personally, I think they do this because a woman choosing to make herself unavailable to men is seen as a threat – not just to some types of men, but to some WOMEN too. Infact, to all kinds of conservative philosophy that wants to keep gender roles comfy and rigid. This portrayal of lesbianism or homosexuality as ‘just a show’ or a ‘dirty experiment’ is all just part of the bigger idea put clung to by conservative ways of thinking that being gay is a choice. If you tell yourself it’s a choice, you can then tell yourself there’s no danger of you or your kids ever doing that, and if you’re an insecure man you can tell yourself it’s all for you anyway, negating the fact that these women who are lesbians are usually unavailable and uninterested in men for sexual reasons. Often whilst exclaiming how disgusting it is, of course.

Leigh // Posted 14 July 2008 at 2:04 am

Well, it would be okay for men to find straight women engaging in homosexual play were it not for the fact that we live in an environment where faux lesbianism is part of the vocabulary used to objectify and demean women as sex objects. Because we do, it isn’t. If we rectify that situation this will hopefully note even be a question.

Tester // Posted 14 July 2008 at 5:25 am

Redheadinred, I certainly agree with many of your comments above. However, when it comes to the likes of ‘Nuts’ and ‘Zoo’, I suspect that simpler forces are at work. That is, portrayals (or hints of) lesbianism arouse a large number of their target market, therefore the magazines sell. From the small sample of journalists I have met from this end of the market, they rarely put the slightest thought into the theories behind what the are doing, beyond experimenting to increase their market share and copying their competitor’s latest successful move. Frankly, they are drunk or coked up so much of the time that I doubt they could even pronounce ‘conservative social philosophy’ :)

Likewise, I doubt most of the readers take it very seriously either.

Personally I find them repellant, but I think that is part of their marketing strategy.

It goes without saying that there are attitudes that you describe in society, and it is plausible to theorize that they may be reinforced by the media, but is there any research or evidence to connect these attitudes to this type of media? (honest question, it is a subject where I do not have knowledge).

Shev // Posted 14 July 2008 at 2:30 pm

Lauren O, I find your comments quite problematic – I assume from your answer that you’re not actually a lesbian (maybe bisexual?). You seem to be implying that because guys like it, that makes it ok – and hey, why would lesbians dislike anything that makes straight girls obtainable?

There is certainly nothing wrong in pleasing a partner without ‘debasing’ oneself. I’m not too sure about the word ‘gratifying’ though. I do think that there is something wrong with re-inforcing ideas already far too normalised in the media: i.e. that lesbian sexuality is just another way of objectifying women for the pleasure of men. This has the double result of undermining ‘real’ lesbian sexuality, and reinforcing the boring old ‘all-they-really-need-is-the-*right*-man-which-obviously-would-be-me” syndrome.

And this does have real and definite effects on the way we are treated by a heteronormative society. I speak as someone who doesn’t look obviously ‘gay.’ The episode that springs to mind is from a (gay) club night a couple of years ago, where I met a woman, and we hit it off. Unfortunately, a man in the club decided that we looked too good together to be wasted solely on each other, and he followed us around ALL NIGHT, ignoring every polite and less-polite request to leave us alone, and actually started touching us both when we were kissing. Being slapped down just didn’t seem to have an effect, and we eventually had to call a (male) bouncer to sort it out. Everytime straight girls kiss for a man’s pleasure, they send the message that this is ok behaviour – that lesbianism doesn’t mean a woman can exclude men from her sexuality. Nuts and Zoo send this exact same message, with an added nasty subtext – that whilst lesbian *imagery* is to be applauded (provided always, that the women involved conform exactly to male standards of beauty), women who do not aspire to or fit into this male-gaze-defined idea of beauty, and who do not look like they would welcome the average Nuts reader into their bed to share the joys of Sapphism, are routinely vilified for the crime of not being, or not wanting to be sexually available. And whilst of course I understand that ‘it sells’, and that Nuts readers are basically looking for a quick hit, I do not consider this a justification for women to share in the normalisation of this oppression – the idea that all women should (and should want to) be available for men, all the time.

Additionally, while you may be happy at your ability to please your partner – what about pleasing yourself? Where does that come in the scale of things? Would you do it if you weren’t trying to please a guy?

Finally, I don’t particularly want to be a straight girl’s experiment, when she knows all along that a relationship is not possible or desirable for her with another woman – but we do look so hot together, and girls kiss so nicely and smell so much better… No, no, no. And no, her boyfriend can’t watch.

To go back to the original poster’s point about turning this on its head, and getting turned on by two guys kissing – is this specifically two straight guys kssing for your pleasure, or the general gay imagery? I’d personally suggest watching vids made for gay man (preferably not anything involving the words bareback – this means it was made without using protection, and puts the actors at risk, resulting in a recent spate of HIV infections). Or (if you have a boyfriend who is up for experimentation), you could drag up and pack, and have sex lwith him as a masculine figure…

I wouldn’t say that enojying it is wrong – hey, it’s your fantasy, and the media (read: society) sure as heck isn’t going to send you loads of reinforcing messages that all gay men are secretly doing it for teh wimminz… And I do think that the fact that you are addressing these apparent contradictions is a good thing, meaning that you’r not *just* objectifying these men by default.

Ultimately, only you know what you get out of this, and what about it turns you on. Just remember that the gays aren’t doing it for your viewing pleasure – they’re doing it for theirs!

Laurel Dearing // Posted 14 July 2008 at 8:03 pm

id say theres nothing wrong with acknowledging how you feel, but staring or heckling in a way you wouldnt do do a straight couple is.

people make-out with same-sex sometimes to experiment, sometimes because women are attractive and sometimes because they are horny/drunk and dont want to be called whores because of getting off with the opposite sex, and they are less likely to be expected to do anything else after or for it to be awkward after.

i havent known anyone that didnt have a go at the people recording them on their phones anyway. but its besides the point.

people allowing the opposite sex to do these things are encouraging the idea that it is just for them. how many people do you know that feel they have the right to photograph a straight couple? someone would deck them!

i cant talk so much about the effects on the real lesbian community because i cant claim to know, but ill still say dont make out for male attention or give attention to guys trying to get yours that way if you can. do not feed anything that encourages the attitude.

Lauren O // Posted 14 July 2008 at 11:06 pm

Shev, the first sentence of my post says that I am a mostly straight woman, so your assumption that I am not a lesbian is correct. The second sentence of my post says the women I’ve kissed have not been for male spectators, so I don’t really know what to make of your question “Would you do it if you weren’t trying to please a guy?” I also have an entire paragraph in there about how I think women kissing other women for men’s enjoyment should derive pleasure out of it too, which makes your question “what about pleasing yourself?” seem a little out of place to me. But my post was rather long; perhaps you just skipped over those parts.

I am not saying that because a guy likes it, that makes it okay. I’m saying that just because a guy likes it doesn’t mean it’s not okay. I do not think that pseudo-lesbian activity performed for men in person implies that real lesbians are also performing for men (except to moronic dudes who think they are entitled to everything, but they’ll get that same implication out of goddamn near anything). Anyone who acknowledges the fluidity of sexuality (or even just the existence of hetero-, bi-, and homosexuality) can make the distinction between women who are only into women, who are, by logical induction, not trying to please men, and women who are primarily into men who are trying to please them (and having fun themselves during the process).

However, when that sort of performance is actively marketed to men in a magazine like Nuts or Zoo, it’s a different story. I agree with you wholeheartedly that that’s a pretty blatant instance of objectification and commoditization. There is a difference between getting paid to do something you’re not interested in so that men can be aroused by your image without ever meeting you and performing a pseudo-lesbian act that you enjoy for a boyfriend whom you know will be aroused by the act without assuming real lesbians are also performing for him.

And, of course, there should be honesty involved. If you do not want to be a straight girl’s experiment, you by no means should be a straight girl’s experiment. I would say, though, that it would probably be pretty difficult to trick you into making out with me for my boyfriend if my boyfriend was chilling there watching.

Lastly, I have definitely been heckled in clubs in the way you describe just for dancing on the dance floor. Some entitled assholes will think they are allowed to do such things, regardless of whether you are kissing other girls or not.

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 16 July 2008 at 8:08 pm

I think guys kissing is hot, and as long as my enjoying that is confined to going “yay” on Hollyoaks when JP and Kieran kiss (!!), rather than engaging in the kind of entitled “this is all for me” type behaviour in real life that others have mentioned above, I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

And, while I agree it is in some ways heterosexualised, I still get turned on by The L Word, and I think it’s unfair – not to mention presumptuous about what women enjoy – to say that it’s simply aimed at titillating heterosexual men.

Erica // Posted 18 July 2008 at 12:07 pm

I don’t really have an answer for Guilty Mind but I did just want to make a comment. When me and my girlfriend are out in public holding hands we have often experienced straight men shouting obscenities at us, asking us for a threesome, asking if they can “share my girlfriend”, asking if they can watch etc. I feel like every time two girls (whether straight, lesbian, bi) perform sexual acts for straight men it perpetuates the idea that we are there for their entertainment. Putting up with this on a regular basis really gets me down. I’ve just come across this video which I’ve heard has been number one in the States for several weeks and it has my blood boiling

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 18 July 2008 at 9:07 pm

“It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave….”

Umm, fuck you?! Methinks the subtitle for the song is something along the lines of “…but only cos I know you’ll think it’s so hot, babes, and anyway, women don’t REALLY like women, it’s all just foreplay for the real thing”

I think without the boyfriend and “it’s so innocent/naughty” references it wouldn’t be so bad – there’s plenty of songs about men and women meaninglessly getting it on – the problem is that the kiss isn’t seen as meaningless because it’s about sex rather than emotion, but because it apparently doesn’t count as “real” sexual activity as it happened with a girl.

Despite all that, she can kiss me any day… How irritating :-/

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