Letter to Harper’s: “Boys on the Side”

The November 2007 issue of Harper’s publishes a letter from NPN’s Jendi Reiter, “Boys on the Side”. Reiter is responding to a September article by Laura Kipnis, “Lust and Disgust: A short history of prudery, feminist and otherwise”. In her article, Kipnis reviews Intercourse (Andrea Dworkin), Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good (Wendy Shalit), and Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both (Laura Sessions Stepp).

Some excerpts from the article by Kipnis:

…Dworkin reads like a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bubbly pro-sex post-feminism. Feminist anger isn’t exactly in fashion at the moment: these days women just direct their anger inward, or carp at individual men, typically their hapless husbands and boyfriends. Nevertheless, the theme that sex injures women continues to percolate through the culture in a well-meaning nibbled-to-death-by-ducks sort of way–that is, without the feminism and without Dworkin’s entertaining rhetorical grandiosity…

…Stepp…argues variously that [young women today] don’t know what they feel, are doing themselves lasting injury, or should be pursuing serious relationships [instead of casual ones], because sex and commitment should be aligned. (There are a lot of “shoulds” floating around, which reminds me of an old art school teacher of mine who used to say, “Shouldhood is shithood.”)

…female sexuality has always generated alarmist narratives–long before feminism, or the sexual revolution, there was something scandalous and dirty about it. Also endlessly fascinating, hence the taboos, the purity rites, the pornography industry… It’s the problem that generates the succession of solutions that somehow never solve anything.
Reiter responds:

To write a critical essay on Andrea Dworkin’s bleak view of sex, as Laura Kipnis does (“Lust and Disgust”, September, p.87), without once mentioning [Dworkin’s] horrific experiences of sexual violence and her lifelong struggle on behalf of similarly victimized women, is criminally irresponsible. A reader new to the subject would leave Kipnis’ essay believing that the late feminist author was animated merely by personal revulsion for the act of intercourse. Kipnis’ lengthy review never seriously engages with Dworkin’s arguments, while her arch tone reduces the activist’s dramatization of sexual inequality to an eccentric fantasia, a baroque romp to be shelved alongside Sade and other chroniclers of sensual excess.

To be sure, Dworkin’s analysis of male-female relations can be crude to the point of caricature, and as Kipnis observes, her gender essentialism is at odds with the intimacy and individuality she hoped to restore to the sex act. But these passionate deformations themselves attest to the severity of the sexual oppression she encountered. Kipnis discusses Dworkin’s writing as if the entertainment value of her literary style were the main issue. This substitution of rhetorical for political concerns makes it easier for the essayist to wave away Dworkin’s testimony as chacun à son gout.

Kipnis’ review is misleadingly subtitled “A short history of prudery, feminist and otherwise.” The concern that actually unites the three books under discussion–Dworkin’s Intercourse, Wendy Shalit’s Girls Gone Mild and Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both–is not sex but power. Intimacy entails vulnerability, and with it comes the potential for abuse. Physically, at least, these risks are greater for women.

Female sexual vulnerability is a tricky subject for feminists. Overemphasize it and you risk reinforcing patriarchal modesty codes, as Kipnis accuses Shalit of doing. However, in her haste to empower women in the abstract, Kipnis has to invent reasons why the real young women interviewed by Sessions, who found themselves emotionally battered and numbed by impersonal sexual encounters, should not be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, Kipnis is right to be troubled that both Shalit’s and Sessions’ books put all the responsibility on women to change our sexual mores. Where are the books teaching our young men to respect their partners and nurture the connection between their bodies and their souls? Can we learn anything from how previous cultures taught men self-restraint, without losing the egalitarian gains of the present? It’s this larger and more interesting story that Kipnis misses in her haste to force all “sex books” into the clichéd drama of rebels versus prudes.

See also:

Andrea Dworkin: Time for Progressives to Stand with the Victims, Not the Users (explicit language)
He has a constitutional right to express himself, and if his art requires that she be the canvas, so what? If he’s an engraver and her skin is his surface, so what? If he wants to sculpt her to death or twist her body until it breaks where he turns her, so what? He’s a citizen; she’s a cunt. The Constitution protects him. All’s right with the world.

Then there is the right to sex, which is implicitly his, since he gets what he wants: law, justice, honor, and feminist agitation notwithstanding. If it gives him sexual pleasure, getting in his way is mean and petty. If it hurts her, so what?… And if she screams, and he gets off on it, so what? If she tears–her rectum, her vagina, her throat–and he likes it, so what?…

The free market is where she is bartered, bought, and sold. It is often euphemistically called a marketplace of ideas, but only his ideas have value, put into practice, of how to sell her… She is worth more in pieces than she ever was whole. The pimps’ motive is twofold: money and pleasure. The user does what he wants, calls it what he likes. Everyone wants to be him–to be the user, not the used. This is a political point: what once was the Left wants to be the user, does not want to be anywhere but on top of the used; and some so-called feminists want to be the user, not to be under, not to be the condemned, the injured… It was ignorance to disassociate oneself from the raped before raped women articulated what rape is and means; it is malice, cowardice, and venality to disassociate oneself from the raped now–after the raped have made rape socially real. The same is true for battery, incest, prostitution; the same for pornography, made from the raw material of womens’ bodies, used against womens’ bodies, the production and the use designed to control, dehumanize, humiliate, injure, and subordinate: push down, push under, make lower, make less, render inferior.

A Review of Andrea Dworkin: “Pornography, prostitution, and a beautiful and tragic recent story”
All this talk about choice and rights obscures the fact that no one has the right “to buy another human being and through one’s consumption make that human being do something repugnant, from being an object to having violence used against the body.” (p.144) The exchange of money doesn’t entitle you to disregard another person’s feelings and dignity.

Female Chavinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
The most valuable feature of this book is the chapter “The Future That Never Happened,” Levy’s brief history of the feminist movement, which shows how it became co-opted by a male-dominated sexual revolution that evolved into raunch culture. For instance, one little-known fact is that Hugh Hefner helped bankroll early feminist initiatives such as the legalization of abortion and the Pill, the National Organization for Women, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Anything that broke down “prudish” sexual mores was good for business, Hef reasoned. His targets included not only religious conservatives but what he called the “puritan, prohibitionist…antisexual” element within feminism…

…dissent arose within the feminist community from women who claimed the “sex-positive” label. Listening to angry prophets is no fun. Men who were threatened by the feminist critique of porn, and women who were tired for being shamed for their sexual choices, combined to discredit the Brownmiller camp as a bunch of scolds.

Raunch culture came along as a way for women to have their cake and eat it too. We could feel empowered without needing to make enemies or stop having “fun” as defined by the commercial media. In this way, says Levy, feminist energy became co-opted by a consumer culture in which solidarity for political change is replaced by personal advancement at the expense of other women. For a large part of raunch culture’s appeal, she says, is that it permits women to hang onto their feminist credentials while using their sexuality to achieve success in a male-dominated business world.

Women have to act like one of the guys to establish themselves in this domain, and gleefully collaborating with their love of porn is an effective way to do it. “Raunch provides a special opportunity for a woman who wants to prove her mettle. It’s in fashion, and it is something that has traditionally appealed exclusively to men and actively offended women, so producing it or participating in it is a way both to flaunt your coolness and to mark yourself as different, tougher, looser, funnier—a new sort of loophole woman who is ‘not like other women,’ who is instead ‘like a man.'” (p.96) A loophole woman is a token successful woman who creates the illusion that her profession is accessible to women in general.

Female chauvinist pigs are
women who have internalized sexist values to such an extent that they imitate the most irresponsible and aggressive kind of male sexual behavior. They have convinced themselves that it is feminist and empowering to have numerous casual, exploitative sexual encounters, and they show contempt for women they perceive as too “feminine” (meaning emotional, vulnerable and modest)…

Raunch culture is particularly cruel to teen girls, who feel pressure to perform before they can even understand their own desires. The girls Levy interviewed, mainly students at elite high schools, seemed perpetually distracted by the competition to “dress the skankiest” and rack up the greatest number of conquests, in order to gain status in their female peer group. (p.152) Sex and beauty were about power, not pleasure. In fact, some sexually active girls repressed feelings of arousal in order to avoid vulnerability.

A Review of Adriene Sere, “Sex and feminism: Who is being silenced?”
It must also be acknowledged that peer pressure and the demand for conformity within political movements are hardly exclusive to feminists. Leftist culture, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, put incredible pressure on people to conform to certain forms of behavior–including what to eat, how to dress, what language to use, and how to earn and spend money. Perhaps the most stringent demand for conformity was made on women’s sexuality. For a woman to be considered acceptable within leftist culture, she had to have a ‘good attitude’ about sex. She was supposed to be sexually accessible, go along with casual sex, and be open to ‘sexual experimentation’. If a woman rejected the demand for sexual conformity, she would face ferocious male wrath in the form of exclusion, harassment, and stigmatization. (p.273)

A Review of Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families
Feminism’s “sex-positive” turn and the progressive defense of porn may be reactions against the humorless and censorious political correctness of 1990s liberalism. Yet porn itself actually inculcates deeply regressive attitudes about sex roles. (p.248) The cheap, degraded sex in porn films mimics the prudery of yesteryear in its distaste for the body, particularly women’s bodies. (p.248)

Feminists Confront Feminists Over Pornography
Feminists involved in recognizing, challenging and trying to stop violence are concerned with what creates a social context of pervasive violence that is denied, minimized, and trivialized, and simultaneously is legitimated and defined as normative, consensual sexual relations… Why is there so little empathy and concern for victims of sexual violence, except in circumstances of interracial or interclass violence?…

The compelling issues and questions have to do with mistreatment, harassment, rape, battery, and murder, not sex per se. The imaginative feminist vision is a society free of inequality and violence, not a society free of sexual desire and expression…

[S]peaking out, publicizing and protesting sexual violence, empowers women–it makes those harmed feel less alone and isolated, and it makes perpetrators more publicly accountable. Speaking out makes change possible because sexual abuse becomes a social and community issue, rather than an individual private tragedy…

Women are empowered, not disempowered, when they demand the right to be treated as human beings. Hope for a better life is possible when women struggle to change relationships, make decisions to leave relationships when equality and mutual respect are not forthcoming, and challenge and fight mistreatment and abuse in the workplace, in social institutions, and in capitalist enterprises whether or not they are connected with sexuality.

Fear of Sex
We’d like to highlight these excerpts from “Just a prude? Feminism, pornography, and men’s responsibility”

“I’m not against sex or sexual pleasure. I’m against the kind of sex that is routinely presented in contemporary pornography. I’m against that kind of sex because it hurts people in the world today, and it helps construct a world in which people–primarily the most vulnerable people, women and children, both girls and boys–will continue to be hurt….

“It seems that pro-pornography forces live with their own fear of sex, the fear of being accountable for their imaginations and actions. The defenses of pornography typically revert to the most superficial kind of liberal individualism that shuts off people from others, ignores the predictable harms of a profit-seeking industry that has little concern for people, and ignores the way in which we all collectively construct the culture in which we live.”

Rebecca Whisnant: “Not Your Father’s Playboy, Not Your Mother’s Feminist Movement” (explicit language)
…a feminism that acquiesces to certain key male entitlements, while simultaneously presenting itself as bold and liberated and rebellious, is likely to be appealing to many women. A version of feminism that supports girls’ and women’s desired self-conception as independent and powerful, while actually requiring very little of them as far as confronting real male power, will similarly have wide appeal…

…we adjust our desires based on what’s actually happening and on what we think is and is not possible. Philosophers have a useful term for the results of this process: “adaptive preferences.” The basic idea is simple: if I can’t have something (or think I can’t have it), then it behooves me not to want that thing. Conversely, if I’m going to get something whether I like it or not, then I’ll be happier if I can get myself to want it and like it. So people adapt their desires to fit their situations, rather than vice versa, thus minimizing the pain and cognitive dissonance of continuing to want something that they don’t think they can get: “if you can’t have what you want,” as the saying goes, “then want what you have.”

The concept of adaptive preferences is indispensable to understanding the self-reproducing dynamics of oppressive systems. In particular, I think it can help us understand the new brand of feminism of which I am, for the moment, taking Karp and Stoller as representatives—the brand that’s sometimes called “do-me feminism,” but for which the less polite moniker is “fuck-me feminism.”

…[A]s we continue to tell people what sexual freedom isn’t, we should also encourage them to think deeply and creatively about what it is. What would real sexual freedom look and feel like—the kind that everyone can have, instead of the kind that amounts to freedom for some at others’ expense? We need to richly imagine, and encourage others to richly imagine, another world: one in which no woman or girl is ever called “slut,” “prude,” “bitch,” “cunt,” or “dyke”; in which no woman, man, or child ever has to fear rape or suffer its damage to their spirits; in which men do not control their own and other men’s behavior by the threat of being seen and treated as women; and in which lesbian love and connection is not reduced to a pornographic fetish for men. In this world, every woman and girl sees her own body as beautiful, no man or boy is made to see his as a weapon, and people take part in sexual activity only when (and only because) they expect to enjoy it and to be honored and fulfilled therein…