Sexuality, Empowerment, & Feminism: A Difficult Struggle

Anybody who knows even the tiniest detail about feminism will know that the movement has had a rather turbulent history when it comes to its relationship with women’s sexuality. There have been feminists who have decried women’s wearing of stilettos, their use of make up, their mini skirts. There have also been feminists who’ve celebrated women’s sexuality and who have fought to ensure that this sexuality exists on equal terms with men’s. Discussions around pornography seem endless, arguments have taken place around the reclamation of words like ‘slut’, investigations have uncovered young girls’ aspirations and their perceptions of how beauty will serve them throughout their lives. In short, women’s sexuality is rarely off the feminist agenda.

That’s because it’s incredibly important. It’s important because sexuality can inform the way in which women interact with their society, it affects the relationships that they have with other people, and it can have a direct influence on perceptions of independence and free choice. Particularly in the current climate, in a culture which is highly sexualised, sexuality has become a currency so frequently traded that we barely even notice it anymore.

Occasionally, stories about young women becoming strippers or pole-dancers to pay their way through education feature in the newspaper or on television. These always surprise me because everybody talks about them as though this were a novel concept when, in actual fact, women have been taking jobs like this in order to pay for their education for years. Along with this news story came the usual rhetorics about empowerment on one hand and of a society gone wrong on the other. I take issue with the ‘society gone wrong’ angle for numerous reasons: it perpetuates the discourse that women’s sexuality is dangerous, it does nothing to acknowledge the societal pressure on women to be sexual beings, and it reprimands women who do become what they have been moulded to be since before they hit double figures – a thing of beauty, of sexuality and the expectation to use those things to make you successful. However, the focus of this post will concern the empowerment angle.

Words like ’empowerment’, ‘independence’ and ‘choice’ are frequently thrown around like gigantic defensive missiles, quick to detonate any argument that may suggest that women who work as strippers or glamour models are oppressed. In fact, this rhetoric regularly stems from the women themselves as the word “empowerment” is used time and time again as a defence for those young women who are keen to demonstrate that they decided this path for themselves, that nobody forced them to do it. This is, of course, a perfectly acceptable thing for a young woman who is in control of her own body and her own sexuality to say and nobody has the right to say otherwise.

sexuality feminism empowerment

However, this doesn’t stop me feeling concerned that some young women may say they are feeling empowered when, in fact, the complete opposite is true. Horror stories recounting the way that men often attempt to touch breasts or vaginas despite it being against club rules, of dancers being called sluts and whores, of earning £10 for eight hours work, of having to drink excessively to get through their shift, of quitting college because they can’t afford to not work all of their time at the club, make me wonder whether this is truly empowerment.

A word previously utilised by feminists, ’empowerment’ has now been appropriated by the patriarchy. In a culture where young women are repeatedly fed the message that feminism is redundant, that women are equal citizens, and that the fight is won, empowerment has become a word which allows women to legitimately engage in patriarchal discourses without having to acknowledge the oppressive or unjust nature of these discourses. It’s quite the clever move by the patriarchy; using the tools of feminism to turn young women against feminism, to encourage them not to think critically about their social positioning, to praise them as independent and empowered women for utilising their sexuality in particular ways. Being on the side of the patriarchy also pays great dividends because there is no longer a need for young women to align themselves with a movement which has historically faced mountainous criticism, a movement which is still described as prude, outdated and frigid (despite the enormous amount of feminists proving the contrary). Which young woman wants to be described as any of those things?

Feminism is being invaded from the inside, having its own tools and language used against it as the patriarchy perpetually judges women’s worth in terms of beauty and sexuality whilst men are still valued on their intelligence and strength. As long as we continue to live in a culture where sex is everything, women are in danger of being oppressed and hindered by expectations of sexuality. And I’m not just talking about stripping or lap-dancing here, I’m talking about expectations to wear make up, about victim blaming because of short skirts or skimpy blouses, about the harassment and the culture of sexual violence that comes as part and parcel of this sexuality. Women exist within a massive contradiction; they are repeatedly engaged in discourses that encourage them to use their sexuality as currency, but the perpetrators of those same discourses then punish women for being ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’. Further, women are punished in this whilst also being sold the illusion that this is what it means to be empowered and therefore have no reason to complain about it.

Great work is being done to erode the negative perceptions of feminism and to challenge the sexual oppression of women occurring under the guise of empowerment. We need to continue this work and we need feminism. We cannot allow patriarchy to fool us into thinking that feminism is over. I fear a move towards women having no solace in sisterly solidarity as women continue with girl-on-girl hatred (a lot of which arises because of beauty standards and sexuality). Women need to be able to discover true empowerment in whatever form it appears for them. Empower yourself with sex, with intelligence, with activism, with humour, with love, with family, with breastfeeding in public, with whatever makes you happy. Whatever the hell it is that you want to do as a woman, or just generally as a human being, if you are going to feel truly empowered about it then do it.

However, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are supposed to feel empowered but actually you feel oppressed or damaged by that situation, I encourage you to speak out. If we all support each other to overcome our fears of calling out the patriarchal bullshit we encounter on a regular basis, we make the transition to true empowerment much easier.

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  • We need feminism as the cultural biases about women and sex are so deeply entrenched in our minds that we don’t even know it. I had a friend literally giving me “But I’m a feminist, so that’s not what I’m saying!” while clearly implying getting abused was my fault. I’ve heard other women who are self-possessed and feminist in our culture hating on females of other cultures, because their feminism doesn’t encompass curiosity or openness.

    Well, this made me think. And rant. Great post, as always.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this, it was a tough post to write so I’m glad you got something from it! I think we’re all guilty because, as you say, it’s so unbelievably entrenched that we’re subconsciously unaware of how deeply the way we perceive men and women runs. I guess it’s just about trying to be reflexive and try and come out of the normal way of thinking as much as possible.