Sex work meets second wave: a new kind of repression

Why are the women who once burnt their bras for equality so reluctant to embrace pornography? Des Ibekwe discusses.

I was recently watching a debate in which Germaine Greer had renounced pornography and the industry as a whole. Her revulsion initially angered me. Greer in her seminal work ‘The Female Eunuch’ had spoken out against the repression of female sexuality and said to the New York Times in 1971 that “women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire”.  Why should Greer, a figurehead of the bra burning, pill popping, liberated ‘second wave’ feminism be denouncing an industry in which women are given an avenue for sexual expression, casting expectations of how female sexuality should be channeled. Greer then goes on to talk about how degrading pornography can be, how it fetishizes the body, how the industry itself is filled with exploitation and barely legal practices. The risk of degradation for Greer is enough for her to abhor and denounce the industry entirely. My problem is this: if the belief in the degrading gaze and formula of pornography means it should be stopped, what about porn stars such as Asa Akira who openly stated, I’m proud of myself for having the guts to indulge in my desires”, wouldn’t stopping pornography cut off genuine avenues of pleasure for some women, and wouldn’t this be a new kind of oppression? The issue is complex, no doubt. Truly a balancing act.

When you have a narrative dominated by liberated and empowered women who have changed discourse in a way that has allowed for there to a general view of women as being sexual in a constructive and healthy way, what seems to be missing is a concession that sexuality for many women remain a crutch, a sort of pool to dip in for a temporary and superficial boost of self-worth. Much like the pornography argument there are two sides to this coin and much like Greer in the debate, we should look at deeper issues at hand. Honesty and openness with regards to sex have been skewed towards the side that’s easiest and most ideologically convenient to purport, we need to have discussions and recognition that casual sex is great, casual sex for the right reasons is even better.

Returning again to Greer, she said in the preamble of the 21st anniversary edition of the ‘Female Eunuch’ that there have been great strides made since the 1970s, with contemporary society being more permissive and open. She asks, “what more could women want?” and answers “Freedom that’s what. Freedom from self-consciousness, freedom from the duty of sexual stimulation of jaded male appetite … freedom from uncomfortable clothes made to titillate,” and she goes on. For her and for many others there is a recognition that female sexuality has been hijacked, in more ways than one and thus has been used to oppress us once more. This oppression however comes in a much more appealing package, one that if we do not reflect deep enough on, we could even feel we chose it. Liberation by its very definition is the ‘freedom from limits on thought or behavior’; the freedom has to be our own, the thoughts have to be ours. Sexuality and sexual appeal shouldn’t be a yardstick of self-worth. True liberation is that which is naturally occurring, from within. We stare in the face of the behemoth of the new ‘ideal’ – the sexuality of the modern woman being typified as an exertion of confidence rather than perhaps being telling of deeper issues.
The idea of liberation has become extremely convoluted and diluted. Poisoned by a patriarchal dimension. Sexual liberation comes from within and we need to bring the narrative to a more neutral ground of concession and appreciation. Sex and acceptance are not synonymous, one should not seek acceptance in sex alone. It’s not healthy. Pornography, casual sex and all these things should of course be celebrated, when done right. However, this should be done with a socially responsible, public recognition that the reasons are not as straight forward as we would like to think. Much like Greer and pornography we need to view what sexuality really means for women in a pragmatic way, is it for the right reasons? Is it truly liberating? This is definitely not a demonization of sexually liberated women but rather an appeal to the superficially liberated who fear the repercussion of an admission that sex is an avenue of male approval for them. We need to be open and honest with ourselves and this is where we start.

Collage by Joy Molan

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