Friday, August 31, 2012

Unpacking women's supposed sexual power over men

Note: This post is not meant to imply that women can never have any form of power over any man and are always de-facto victims. On a case-by-case basis, this can and does happen, of course. This post is meant to de-construct a view of women's sexual power over men as the consistent, broad, and enduring phenomenon it is often portrayed as.

I saw an image online of a little girl in her underwear, pulling on the elastic so she can see what it's covering, as a little boy near her looks on. A speech bubble above the little girl's head reads: "with this, I'm gonna rule the world!" And of course, it's difficult to be a woman or a man in this country and not be familiar with that sentiment; you hear it almost every time a woman brings up her oppression and male privilege: "no, it's actually you women who have power over us men, because you can use the power of sex!" Which of course doesn't address the issue of institutional, socio-political, and cultural inequality, or the fact that even when/IF this sexual power is operable, it would usually only apply to women men found conventionally attractive and cis-hetero women. But let's just unpack this assumption and PRETEND that there's something to it. When people say this, what sorts of things do they have in mind? Just how are these instances of power supposed to play out?

A woman getting free drinks at a bar, either because men buy them for her or because it's Ladies Night? Men CHOOSE to buy drinks for women, and they usually do so in the hopes that they'll get laid, (even if all they want is a phone number, it's so they can get laid at a later date). Ladies Night is a way for bars to get more business, because more female customers = more male customers, so it's for the sake of money and appealing to men's desire to hit on women at bars.

Do they mean it in a more direct, transactional way, like getting money for sex? I doubt it, and sex workers are one of the most abused, disrespected, and disenfranchised groups in this country. Often their finances aren't even in their own control, but in the hands of a usually abusive pimp.

Does it refer to women deciding who they want to have sex with and being the gatekeepers of their own body? That's not a privilege or power over anyone; that's a human right, but one that is violated and ignored at an alarming rate, anyway.

Using attention and/or sexual favors to advance professionally? I don't think this is all that common and is pretty problematic, but wouldn't needing to give sexual favors in order to advance from a subordinate position underscore your position as a member of an underclass anyway?

Becoming famous and/or wealthy through being sexually attractive? This is quite possibly the only example that even remotely makes sense here, and 1. it only affects a handful of women, and 2. it can also apply to attractive men (actors, models, musicians, etc.) so it is not unique to women. Many women would be completely barred from this avenue of wealth. What's more, even these women are still exploited in some way; their successes belittled, their minds dismissed, their whole being objectified and often reduced to the sexual pleasure they can offer men (quick and easy example: men's magazines like Maxim and Equire. The latter referred to Rihanna as "the essence of the word 'fuck'". Talk about reducing someone to a sex object, even when they're a successful, accomplished woman!). They are often slut-shamed for using their body for capital gain, as though they created the system and weren't simply trying to take advantage of it. And doubtless there is usually some man or multiple men behind the scenes profiting from her success. Most importantly, being famous or wealthy hardly translates into ruling the world. Money usually does not necessarily entail political power for women, especially not as a group.

The sad thing is, it was a woman who posted this comic (I don't know if a woman created it, though), and I know that many women agree with this view and find it empowering. When women use the system to their advantage, I don't blame them for it. But I think awareness of the fact that women's bodies, either the disseminated image or even the real physical body, are linked to sexist oppression (through pornography, sex trafficking, rape, and femicide), is key to understanding what we're up against. Calling objectification empowering is like living in bondage and calling it freedom. It's like using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. I'm not suggesting that a woman's own body and sexuality can't be instrumental in her liberation. It definitely is. Sex is a part of life, and no liberation is possible by denying ourselves sexual pleasure. But cis-hetero men's obsession with women's bodies as an object for sexual consumption is not a source of real power for women; it's linked to men and their pleasure, it's a "power" men give us, that they allow themselves to be affected by, because they know how fake it is, how flimsy, how it ties into their desires and forms no real threat to their power and privilege, to the socio-political order, not even close. It holds as much power as a diversion, as a game before the return to real matters at hand; there may be some resistance, some refusal, some playing hard to get, some flaunting, some teasing, but he knows that he'll get what he wants in the end, through force, coercion, manipulation or simply by moving on to the next one.



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You are brutal towards men. Your last sentence really offended me. I am not referring to the top 1% here, I am talking about everyday male-female dynamics. And what do I see? I see that I have NO power over my own dating life. The only power I have, is who I talk to and that only goes so far. A woman who turns 18, her options are only limited by her own shame and proximity. A man who turns 18 is at the very bottom of the food chain. Why do women date older successful men if they are arguing for more equal wages?