Pleasure, Pain & Patriarchal Power: Could there be an elephant in the bedroom?

One of the books that I’m reading at the moment is a collection of essays titled Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary feminist issues. Featuring 17 short essays written by academics from across the globe, it’s the kind of book that you can dip in and out of and feel that you’ve learned something important from each time that you do. Over the weekend I delved into Laura Tarzia’s chapter on sexuality. Focused on the relationship between sexual violence against women and female sexual desire, Tarzia’s chapter raises far more questions than it can possibly answer in a mere nine pages. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Whilst discussing the relationship between female sexual pleasure and violence in the past I’ve found myself feeling concerned that challenging the healthiness of desires that exist outside of my personal experience will lead me to come across as prudish and ignorant, worse still, non-feminist. After reading more about it, though, I’ve realised that my concerns aren’t as naive or misplaced as I feared. As Tarzia states, there is a disparity between liberal feminism’s ongoing fight to eradicate sexual violence against women and its acceptance of degrading sexual practices and experiences as long as they are ‘chosen’ and not unwillingly imposed.

In a patriarchal society, the idea that degrading sexual or sex-related experiences can be consented to by women is highly paradoxical, and something that can be further explored when considered in relation to the porn and glamour industries. During a discussion about the proposed discontinuation of ‘Page 3’ in The Sun newspaper a few years ago, my partner at the time argued that because the models had chosen to work within the glamour industry their portrayal in the feature wasn’t sexist or degrading. Scrapping ‘Page 3’ altogether, he suggested, would pose worrying censorship issues for our publishing industry.

This is an argument that we also often hear in regard to female porn actors and those performing any other work that involves ‘chosen’ objectification or degradation (recent debates surrounding Forumla One’s ‘grid girl’ ban, for example, demonstrate the extent to which the notion of consent in regard to women’s bodies remains a highly contentious issue). What my partner at the time failed to see, I think, is the blurry distinction between freedom of expression within the media and the normalised exploitation of women’s bodies (which some of us do willingly participate in). The average annual wage that ‘Page 3’ models were able to earn, for example, was not only extremely unstable (ranging from £12000 for beginners to £1M for the very successful), but incredibly modest in comparison to the huge annual profits that their naked bodies helped to rake in for The Sun.

It’s hard to ignore the possibility that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence.

I have personally always been more interested in why women choose objectification than the fact that they have been granted the autonomy to ‘choose’ in the first place. When we consider the immense power that traditional gender ideals have historically had over women’s lives in both the public and private spheres, it’s hard to ignore the possibility, as Tarzia highlights, that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence. Whether or not a potentially degrading sexual or sex-related experience has been chosen by a woman, in a society founded on masculine ideology the choices that we make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe they are.

In terms of consensual violence against women, BDSM and other such sexual sub-cultures are vital to consider. Existing across gender distinctions and binaries, these sexual practices facilitate the sexual subordination and dominance of both women and men alike. So as well as there being women who desire sexual violence to be inflicted upon them, there are also those who prefer to inflict pain upon their male partners. There are also, of course, men within the BDSM and fetish community who desire to be sexually dominated by women, either because they seek to express characteristics that are discouraged in their professional and domestic lives, or because they enjoy seeing women who are routinely disempowered take on a different ‘role’ so to speak. What is evident in all of this is that our sexual preferences and transgressions can be reflective of the power dynamics at play within both our public and private lives.

Considering also the performative aspect of traditional gender distinctions (within which men play the dominant role), and how this relates to perceptions of power in society, our sexual fantasies and behaviours can be seen as representing far more than simply a gateway to pleasure. In a society which both reveres and rewards men who display (or perform) behaviours that are considered ‘masculine,’ such as sexual prowess, aggression and dominance, it’s possible to see how women (traditionally perceived as less powerful) may be conditioned to both encourage and feel attracted to male violence.

Across the globe women’s bodies are publicly exploited and degraded on a regular basis. And whether it be through magazines, TV shows, films or pornography, we are all of us exposed every day to images that mirror a fundamentally masculine notion of sexuality. Bearing this in mind, an important question to ask is whether exposure to images and behaviours that openly degrade and objectify women has led us to embody and accept as our own sexual fantasies and beliefs that are rooted in misogyny.

I do not pretend to have any clear or definite answers to the questions highlighted here, nor have I intended to cast judgement or shame upon those who identify with the sexual desires and practices alluded to. One thing I am certain of, though, is that difficult and paradoxical as the notion of consent is when it comes to sexual violence against women, it is an issue that deserves further exploration.

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