So, there’s Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story, in which she posits that today’s women are turning to SM lite en masse as a counter to modern-day independence and that the feminists who fret over such fantasies can suck it. And there’s the clamorous rebuttal coming from every quarter and arriving at more or less a consensus: click-mongering misogynist Katie Rophie misrepresents feminism, BDSM, and psychology, and is totally on crack.
I agree with the Roiphe haters, but I’ll take a different tack in my defense of feminism. In my experience, feminism doesn’t just allow you free reign in your fantasy life, feminism equals sexy. And I don’t mean this figuratively, as in iPads are sexy. I mean it literally, as in feminism equals materials and attitudes and actions that lead to sexual arousal and satisfaction. (I guess some people might feel that way about iPads, too.) At least that’s the role it’s had for me. I started noticing gender-based unfairness when I was just a little kid, and when I was older, learning how to deconstruct the systems that contributed to that unfairness gave me an intellectual thrill — but I’m honestly not sure I would have gone for that women’s studies minor if it wasn’t linked in my mind with good sex.
From the time I was twelve, round about 1980, I was looking for sexual information and titillation anywhere I could get it, and I couldn’t afford to be picky. A friend’s dad’s Playboys, The Joy of Sex pilfered from the library, V. C. Andrews novels passed among classmates, Judy Blume books, late-night Showtime, Spencer’s Gifts: they all made their appearance. But it wasn’t until I started calling myself a feminist in my late teens that the floodgates really opened. I guess if I had been in the trenches of “the movement,” I would have experienced fallout from the big clash between the Catherine MacKinnons and the lipstick lesbians, or whoever. (Well, not whoever. I just said that for rhetorical effect. On the pro-sex side were people like Susie Bright, Kathy Acker, Betty Dodson, who I was finding at the time.) But I came of age at the right moment, and whenever I was in a feminist bookstore I made a happy bee-line for On Our Backs, which led me to plenty of other SM porn.
I’m pretty straight and On Our Backs was an indie lesbian porn mag, but who cared! It was full of sexy sex, plenty of it suggesting dominance and submission, and I was way more comfortable thumbing through it in Giovanni’s Room than I was scanning the spread-vag rags in the few ammonia-smelling porn stores I’d ventured into with friends, giggling and squirming and feeling as much an object of curiosity and lust as the bearer of it. Also, because I was bookish, soon enough I’d wander away from the bookstore’s magazine racks, and I got off just as much on the tomes of theory that took sex as their analytic subject. Yes, some of the texts were critical of porn, but plenty of them weren’t, and in either case, I was immersed in my favorite topics: gender and sex, handled smartly.
Yet I have to admit it. My first vibrator did not come from any kind of feminist co-operative but from an ammonia-smelling porno store. My best friend bought it for me and sent it to me the summer I turned 19. Built to resemble a giant Caucasian dick, it took three D batteries and never lost its reek of melting plastic. It did the trick, but its motor busted within months, and it’s thanks to feminism that I knew what to do when that happened: Mail order a Magic Wand from Good Vibrations as soon as I had the fifty bucks in hand. I had already made a pilgrimage to the women’s-centered sex store when I visited San Francisco, but I was stone broke then. I could do nothing but finger the displays of dildos and vibrators and latex and leather, nothing but look through the books in the comfy chairs they provided. I walked out empty-handed but dripping and happy. I had a feeling of belonging. This came from getting hot and bothered publicly, sure, in a safe place that welcomed it, but it also came from joy and pride and gratitude for the solidarity of the group of women who made a place like Good Vibrations possible. For me, going to that store, just knowing about that store, messed with boundaries—good girls/bad girls, women/men, do’s and don’ts—that had always chafed. I’m a white, first-world, middle-class woman with the luxury of having sexual support be one of the most important things I needed feminism for, but I did indeed need it. Far from causing me conflict, feminism gave me a way to reconcile my sometimes-weird lustfulness with my busy brain.
I got that dripping, happy feeling from the women’s health centers where I got my medical care and birth control, too. I loved going to those places—Family Planning. Planned Parenthood—and I loved the kind women therein who I could admit things to or ask questions of. Roiphe’s article drips with the certainty that feminists want to censor certain kinds of sex, but who is fighting for our right to control our own reproduction that’s essential to good-time getting it on in the first place? If you’re pregnant with your unplanned third child under four, your sexual satisfaction is probably going to decrease whether your preference tends toward woman-on-top or bound-and-gagged.
I particularly loved the Sex Co-Op at college, an explicitly feminist space that gave me a tingle any time I went in there. Access to cheap birth control made me horny. I loved to run my fingers through the boxes of condoms that lined the co-op’s small office in the Student Union. I’d buy strings of different kinds at a few cents a piece just because I could. I took a feminist women’s health care class in that room, the kind of crunchy, consciousness-raising thing often mocked, during which a group of us charted the fluctuations of our vaginal mucus and sat in a circle, naked from the waist down and with mirrors and flashlights at the ready, to look at our cervixes and share the view. And goddamn it if the knowledge of my mucus and cervix and cycle and so on didn’t help me understand my body better as well as help me tame the constant urinary tract infections I got from too much fucking.
I don’t mean to portray myself as boy’s-girl type of feminist, at the ready for anything, always whipping off my shirt. And I am not suggesting that everything about sex has always and only been good with me, that I’ve never had a problem with porn. That’s not the case. I’ve harangued with the best of them, especially during those early women’s studies classes. Sex and gender and human rights and internalized and external sexism are complicated. That’s part of what interests me. I don’t think feminism on the whole—and what’s the whole?—denies this or tries to shut it down. On the contrary, most feminisms want to get on in there. I have always believed that what I’ve called feminism wants me to get off.
I’ve resisted going into the specifics of Roiphe’s argument, because while there’d be some satisfaction in trotting out her inaccuracies; logical fallacies; over-generalizations; false causations; and selective, vague, and ahistorical evidence, that’s been done so well so many other places. But I’ll tell you that she pins her thesis on the massive popularity among the ladies of the SM-tinged novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can’t resist pulling this one quote:
“Recently on talk shows there has been a certain amount of upstanding feminist tsk-tsking about the retrograde soft-core exploitation of women in Fifty Shades of Grey, and there seem to be no shortage of liberal pundits asking, “Is this what they went to the barricades for?” But of course the barricades have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life.”
I don’t know what talk shows or pundits Roiphe is referring to, or who is doing this feminist tsk-tsking she derides—I have a feeling they’re not the feminists that are in my pantheon, and I suspect they might not be self-identified feminists at all—but I have felt since I’ve been 18 that feminist women have gone to the barricades for me to be able to know my own sexuality, and I appreciate that. Thank you, feminists. I don’t need a Magic Wand anymore because I have a selection of high-quality, ergonomic, battery-operated or rechargeable toys that are a little more graceful. I use them with whatever fantasies turn my crank that day. We’ve come a long way.