In last week's Newsweek cover story, "Spanking Goes Mainstream," author Katie Roiphe set the blogosphere atwitter with her commentary on the cultural trend of bright young women willingly engaged in BDSM relationships: 50 Shades of Grey, Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls --even the wedding night of teen heart throbs Bella and Edward in the third Twilight movie. Roiphe pointed to the paradox that our postmodern freedoms are leading to an embrace of sexual subordination. Because Roiphe's modernist assertions of individual responsibility often clash with postmodern feminists' more nuanced understanding of how cultural and social forces shape us, her analysis was largely dismissed as just another of her potshots against contemporary feminism. But she's picking up something about female agency that I've had on my radar for a while, something women need to think about deeply: Why, when the women's movement aimed to liberate us from being sexually objectified and degraded in a male-dominant culture, are so many women objectifying and degrading themselves?
Feminists get their knickers in a twist, as they say in the UK, whenever anyone dares to question a women's right to choose whatever she wants to choose -- particularly in the bedroom. Culturally mandated chastity, modesty and marriage were the means of controlling women's reproductive lives and their sexuality between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s and the second wave of the women's movement were deeply intertwined, and for complex reasons, sexual freedom became the sine qua non of women's liberation. I show how free I am by flaunting the taboos that cloistered women's sexuality for hundreds of years. The funny thing is that this form of sexual-transgression-as-liberation has been going on now for fifty years, with each upcoming generation feeling that they have discovered something new. Choice is, of course, the expression of human agency; and it's only right that women choose their own path to sexual pleasure. But at this point, I would argue that our continued focus on sexual agency is a distraction.
Choice is a most precious capacity. It makes us human. It's not simply about preferences -- soup or salad, flats or heels, top or bottom. Human agency, expressed through our creative engagement with choice, is how we expand the measure of freedom that we have as human beings. Through it, we can define new potentials and pathways in culture. The capacity for creative agency through choice is what has enabled human beings to thrive and will be the only thing that will enable life to develop further here on Earth. Expressing sexual agency -- doing whatever the f--- we want to do -- has little to do with stretching our capacities toward anything new or significant. It should be a given, exercised in our personal lives, rather than some badge of courage. There's nothing new there. ...
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