News & Politics

"Do-Me" Feminism and the Rise of Raunch

Promoting pleasure for women has been difficult, thanks to a pop culture view of female sexuality riddled with moralism and classic double standards.
From the book Feminism and Pop Culture by Andi Zeisler. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.

Constructing a politics of pleasure has been key to third wave feminism. Thanks to their brave and often unsettling analyses of sexual power structures and the connections between pornography and a larger system of male dominance, feminists of the 1960s and '70s had gotten roundly tarred as being antisex, antiporn, antiheterosexual, and just generally prudish. In part to address this stereotype, the interest in feminist theories of sexuality and the development of a prosex politics became one of the strongest threads of feminism throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. Feminists have debated age-old virgin-whore dichotomies, have called for representations of alternative sexualities and of heterosexuality as experienced by people of all colors and abilities, and have offered controversial-but-compelling perspectives on the power dynamics of everything from butch/femme to S/M. That said, promoting pleasure for women has been as frustrating as it is crucial, thanks in large part to a media and pop culture that still depends on -- and overwhelmingly presents -- a limited view of female sexuality riddled with moralism, judgment, and classic double standards.

Take the phrase "Do-me feminism," coined by journalist Tad Friend in a 1994 Esquire article called "Feminist Women Who Like Sex," which name-checked the likes of Susie Bright, Naomi Wolf, bell hooks, Pat (now Patrick) Califia, and Lisa Palac, writers whose work was concerned with, among other things, creating a broader, more inclusive sexual paradigm. Some of these authors had written previously about feeling that their interest in sex, especially heterosexual sex, made them outsiders in a feminist world that ostensibly believed "Not all rape is intercourse, but all intercourse is rape" (a sentiment falsely but repeatedly attributed to famed antipornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon). Wolf famously wrote in her book Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century that she finds shelter and solace in the male body, and that "there is an elaborate vocabulary in which to describe sexual harm done by men, but almost no vocabulary in which a woman can celebrate sex with men."

Friend's piece picked up on these quotes to construct a straw- woman argument against the dogmatic, antisex profile of second wave feminists and to subsequently champion the women who were supposedly "beating their swords into bustiers" and expressing their feminism one amazing blow job at time. The article's title said it all -- in identifying "feminist women who like sex," Esquire implied that, as a rule, feminist women don't like sex. And ultimately, the piece was service journalism, not so much intended to open an informed dialogue about sex as to convey via heavy breathing that, Hey guys! Hot feminist women want to have sex with you! And thus, a new feminism entered the mainstream -- leading with its breasts -- and became a key example of why feminism just couldn't be easily translated into mainstream media formulas.

This idea of do-me feminism as the dominant identity of the third wave extended to a rekindled interest in the intersections of feminism and sex work. The idea that sex-based economies could grapple with and engage in feminism was not a new one; it had been limned in the mid-1990s by the likes of On Our Backs magazine and in the thoughtful work of authors such as Bright, Califia, Palac, Carol Queen, and Annie Sprinkle. The 1997 anthology Whores and Other Feminists offered a bracing look at how the worlds of peep shows, stripping, prostitution, domination/submission, and porn professionals interact with feminism in both theory and practice. The book's editor, Jill Nagle, was inspired to collect such stories by a roundtable on the sex industry in a 1994 issue of Ms. magazine that featured only one participant who had actually been involved in sex work -- the notoriously rigid, if impressively impassioned, Dworkin. In an interview with the online literary magazine Beatrice, Nagle clarified why she so badly wanted the book out in the world:
A lot of feminists come to the [antiporn] position through having experienced what it's like to be treated as a sexual object inappropriately ... It's a natural -- and I think a necessary -- response ... [But] sex isn't just a world of danger, it's a world of possibilities as well. The point of saying no to danger is to be able to say yes to pleasure. The kind of feminism engendered in what the sex workers I know are doing is going to change the face of feminism if word ever gets out, so I've put it upon myself to get the word out.
Unfortunately, as with so much of feminism, the word that got out about feminism and sex work was devoid of the kind of nuance found in Whores or the feminist writing that came before it. Instead of engaging with theories of how sex work subverts heteronormativity or offering dialogues about the intersections of race, class, and capitalism, what the media and pop culture filtered from these works was the simplistic equation that it was now a feminist act to strip for a living or to watch porn.

Magazines and newspapers all over the world scrambled to spread the news. Two self-proclaimed feminists in New York City founded the group CAKE, whose sole mission was to throw parties at which women wore as little as they wanted, danced on bars with each other, and allowed men to watch as long as they were accompanied by a CAKE member. Websites such as SuicideGirls and Burning Angel popped up on the Internet, offering pinups and porn that didn't conform to pneumatic San Fernando Valley stereotypes; instead of beachy-looking blonds with airbrushed studio tans and cosmetically engorged breasts, these websites showcased different flavors of "alternative" pinups, from sullen, skinny goth girls to tattooed, pierced gutter punks. The cable channel HBO suddenly seemed to have a show about stripping, prostitution, or the porn industry on offer every night of the week. Even Playboy was no longer looked upon as sexist -- after all, it was run by a woman, so how could it be? The idea went like so: By "performing" sex work -- that is, knowingly enacting what was expected of a stripper or other sex worker -- women were in fact reclaiming a sexuality that had been the property of men and using it for themselves. It was objectification as anticipatory retaliation: They were taking back that male gaze and making money off it to boot.

The bedrock arguments for sex work as feminist came down to the concepts of "choice" -- of course -- and financial independence. Supporters of sex work as a feminist act noted that women in the porn industry typically get paid far more than men, and that strippers earned much more in one evening than they could in a week working a manual-labor or retail job. Those who argued for it as a choice reasoned that sex work wasn't all that different from waitressing anyway.

Of course, not everyone was down with pop culture's heavy- breathing embrace of this new take on feminism. For one thing, some feminists were quick to note that HBO's salacious exposés such as G- String Divas, or Salon's publication of high-class call girl Tracy Quan's weekly column, portrayed only the women who actually did have a choice. Women who were driven by systemic poverty or abuse -- who were sex workers for survival -- were invariably absent from any girl- powery narratives of how stripping helped women embrace their sexuality/imperfect bodies/previously shameful kinky streak. For another, very little ink was given to the larger structure of commercial sex work. For instance, SuicideGirls cofounder Missy Suicide insisted that her site was "absolutely feminist," citing as proof that half the site's subscribers are female, and that the models on the site control their own photo shoots and imagery. But she didn't note that models were paid a paltry $200 for photo sets that the site's founders -- unbeknownst to the models -- then turned around and sold to other sites, pocketing the profits. (The site's practices came to light in 2005, when models began leaving the site en masse.) And as sex worker Sarah Katherine Lewis noted in a 2007 AlterNet article, the equation of sex work + money = feminism was a little too simple.
The unglamorous truth about my experience as an adult entertainer is that I felt empowered -- as a woman, as a feminist, and as a human being -- by the money I made, not by the work I did. The performances I gave didn't change anyone's ideas about women. On the contrary, I was in the business of reinforcing the same old sexist misinformation ... I wasn't "owning" or "subverting" anything other than my own working-class status. Bending over to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" didn't make me a better feminist. It just made me a feminist who could afford her own rent.
Lewis noted that, as a working-class woman, she was "lucky" to have the choice of stripping for a living. But her statement posed the question of why self-objectification -- never mind how fun or empowering it might be -- was the most financially remunerative option for women who wanted to make a good living despite limited resources, education, and time.

Ariel Levy's 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture argued that, in fact, women themselves were turning to self-objectification in shocking numbers, noting that the signifiers of what she called "raunch culture" -- strip aerobics classes, T-shirts printed with the words porn star, Girls Gone Wild, and more -- had been adopted by women themselves. But rather than leading to real freedom, women's adoption of "raunch culture" simply duplicated patterns of disdain for and objectification of women. Levy's quest to find out how the new sexual liberation differed from early-model sexploitation involved talking to everyone from the HBO executives responsible for the likes of G-String Divas to the producers of Girls Gone Wild to high-school and college women who have felt pressure to make out with other girls in bars "because boys like it." Ultimately, Female Chauvinist Pigs yielded far more questions than it answered, and the main one was this: If the standards and stereotypes by which girls and women are judged haven't changed, could it really be called empowerment at all?

Pamela Paul struggled with a similar question in her 2005 book Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families; a year later, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting took it on in Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women. Along with Female Chauvinist Pigs, these books pointed out the distinction that lay at the heart of many feminists' discomfort with raunch culture: Liking sex and performing sex are two very different things. And as Levy put it, "If we're going to have sexual role models, it should be the women who enjoy sex the most, not the women who get paid the most to enact it."

Sex work and empowerment will likely remain one of the defining debates of contemporary feminism -- much like past (and to many minds still unresolved) questions about the place of heterosexual marriage or labor politics in feminism. But in a larger realm of pop culture, it is worrisome to see that the visual aspects of raunch culture are indeed infectious, reflected in the number of girls and women who submit applications to SuicideGirls, try out to be Pussycat Dolls, and buy into the notion that, for all women's alleged independence and freedom, the most valuable things they can be still hinge on sex appeal.

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