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

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is a collection of feminist essays titled Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism. Featuring 17 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 you do. Over the weekend I read Laura Tarzia’s chapter on sexuality, which focuses on the complex relationship between female sexual desire and violence. Unsurprisingly, it raises far more questions than it can possibly answer in a mere nine pages. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.

During conversations with friends about the relationship between pleasure and pain I often worry that challenging desires and fantasies which exist outside of my personal experience will lead me to be perceived as prudish and ignorant, or worse still – anti-feminist. After reading more on the subject, though, I realise that my concerns aren’t as naive or misplaced as I’ve often feared. As Tarzia highlights in her essay, there is a conflict of interest at play in liberal feminism’s ongoing fight to eradicate physical and sexual violence against women and its acceptance of degrading sexual practices and experiences as long as they’re ‘chosen’ and not unwillingly imposed.

One means of exploring the paradoxical concept of women consenting to violent and/or degrading sex-related experiences is in the context of the glamour and porn industries. For example, when the proposed discontinuation of The Sun‘s ‘Page 3’ feature was announced a few years ago my partner at the time suggested that because the models had chosen to work in the glamour industry their portrayal in the paper couldn’t be sexist or degrading. Scrapping ‘Page 3’ altogether, he argued, would pose worrying censorship issues for our publishing industry and, by proxy, threaten British democracy. This is an argument we often hear in relation to pornography and any other work that involves women choosing sexual objectification. But what this argument often fails to recognise is the distinction between freedom of expression and the hyper-normalised commodification and exploitation of female bodies, which some women do choose to participate in. Something that we as a society often overlook when thinking about these women is who the greatest beneficiaries of their professions tend to be. The average annual wage that ‘Page 3’ models were able to earn, for instance, was not only extremely unstable, ranging from just £12000 for beginners to £1M for the very experienced and successful, but hugely modest compared to the staggering annual profits that their topless bodies helped to rake in for The Sun. 

Personally, I’ve always been more interested in why some women choose sexually exploitative professions than I have been reassured by the fact that we’re free to choose them in the first place. Something I’ve become hyper aware of through my university studies is the immense power over women’s lives and bodies that patriarchal gender ideals have historically wielded. Combine this with an awareness of how constantly we’re exposed to media that mirrors a fundamentally masculine understanding of female sexuality and it becomes extremely difficult to ignore the possibility, as Tarzia highlights, that some of our choices and desires have been shaped by patriarchal ideology.

Thinking more specifically about heterosexual relationships, the existence and role of BDSM and fetish practices is important to consider. Existing across gender distinctions and binaries, these sexual sub-cultures facilitate the sexual subordination and dominance of men and women alike. So as well as there being women who enjoy sexual and physical violence being enacted upon them, there are also those who prefer to dominate male partners. There are also, of course, men within the BDSM and fetish community who find great pleasure in being dominated by women. This might be because they seek to express characteristics that are discouraged in their professional and domestic lives, or because they enjoy seeing those who are routinely disempowered in society 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 the public and private spheres.

Bringing into the equation the performative aspect of gender distinctions, within which men are afforded the dominant role, and considering how this relates to perceptions of power more broadly in society, our sexual fantasies and behaviours can be understood as far more than simply gateways to personal pleasure. In a society which both reveres and rewards men who practice behaviours that are traditionally considered ‘masculine’ such as aggression, dominance, and sexual prowess it’s possible to see how women (traditionally perceived as weaker and less powerful), might be conditioned to both encourage and feel attracted to male-perpetrated violence.  Bearing all of this in mind, an important question to ask is whether constant exposure to images and behaviours that objectify and exploit female bodies has led women to absorb as our own sexual fantasies and beliefs that are not only rooted in misogyny but hold up the very systems of oppression that we’re attempting to dismantle.

I don’t pretend to have any clear answers to any of these questions, and nor do I intend  to judge or shame anybody who identifies with the sexual desires and practices alluded to here. One thing I am certain of, though, is that difficult and paradoxical as the notion of consent is when it comes to sexual pleasure being derived through violence, it’s an issue that deserves further attention and research.

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