An Open Letter to Ariel Levy

Dear Ms. Levy,

First of all, thank you for writing Female Chauvinist Pigs. The issues you are exposing and delving into no doubt need to be discussed, whether I agree with what you wrote or not. So here’s to a continued discussion.

To say that your book was a page turner that captivated my attention would be an understatement. I finished your book in two days. I was hooked. I read it again. As a feminist, married, bisexual, non-monogamous, polyamorous, activist, writer, academic, performance artist and erotic dancer, as well as a former resident of San Francisco you can probably understand why your book touched me close to the bone. Sometimes too close, in positive and negative ways.

This book arrives at a smart conclusion fairly on; in fact, it would have made a great essay. On page 29 you write, “raunch culture is not essentially progressive, it is essentially commercial.” To me, this is the crucial point of the book and should have been the guiding narrative. Up until page 30 you talk extensively about the mainstreaming of porn stars, pole-dancing classes, Girls Gone Wild and Playboy bunnies. You show examples of how commercialism has co-opted the radical parts of feminism—established by both anti-porn feminism and sex-positive feminism. But you fail to show that sex-positive feminists, women who think critically about sex and public sexuality, are not all watching these shows or buying into these products. There are plenty of feminists—sex-positive feminists—who provide a smart critique to mainstream culture and don’t view Paris Hilton as a mascot of our culture in the least.

Sex-positive feminists and anti-porn feminists alike tend not to agree with much the mainstream’s representation of women. Check out Bitch Magazine, for one, and you’ll see that an intelligent critique of pop culture can be made without falling into one of two categories: sex worker or anti-porn feminist. Is it fair to say it is the fault of feminists that “girl power” has been commercialized and co-opted in less than desirable ways? Unfortunately, you have failed to see what is right under your nose—the real “enemy” here is corporatization. What sex-positive feminist really upholds Paris Hilton as a role model? The sex positive feminists that I read and align myself with—Carol Queen, Annie Sprinkle, Dorothy Allison, Jill Nagle, and a bourgeoning group of radical activist queers are anti-capitalist, eco-friendly, and aren’t sitting around the television watching Girls Gone Wild.

The finger shouldn’t be pointed at women for choosing to explore and celebrate female sexuality, rather it should be pointed at corporate America’s tendency to exploit and bastardize female sexuality. Corporate America is made up of men and women, which raises the question if it’s such a great achievement to have more and more women in business—wouldn’t it be great if they were all working in nonprofits or as artists? But that’s the point—we can’t and don’t have the right to decide what women do. In failing to see this, you’ve spread the message that feminists and women (once again) should be policed about their “morals,” the ways they dress their bodies, and the ways they explore their sexuality.

Moreover, the women who explore their sexuality (onstage and off) with a genuinely noncommercial, underground, intelligent, critical and dissenting voice, have been grouped together with any woman who takes off her clothes in front of a camera or any type of sexual (or gender) exploration, as though there is absolutely no radical and positive aspect to sex-positive feminism. The vast generalizations you’ve made about a very wide variety of women who engage with sexuality make you sound like you just haven’t done your research. Moreover, you use terms like “trashy,” “raunchy” and “dirty” liberally in your book, like everyone should know what you’re talking about. All I get is that you wouldn’t be caught dead in a strip club (and that you think most strippers are extremely unhappy). It may be hard to believe, but some of us wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbucks, Disneyland, or the set of MTV. To me, “trashy” could be descriptive of corporate America—and the distinction between what is a “good” place to hang out and what isn’t doesn’t have to do with what the women working in those places are doing with their bodies. My criteria for a healthy loving environment has more to do with autonomy of the workers, the integrity of the owners, and the kind of community they’ve created for their customers. By implying that raunch/non-raunch is riding on the backs of what women do with their tits, you’ve reinforced the idea that corporate America is generally good for women (and men)—as long as they want to be business executives and not Girls Gone Wild.

First off, even though I am a performer who engages with sexuality onstage, I want to clarify that I do not believe that “a woman who takes off her clothes” = “an empowered woman.” For the record, I do not believe that sex work is, in and of itself, empowering. No, the empowering is up to the individual woman, and arises as a result of taking the necessary steps—unique to each woman—to understand her own feelings of powerlessness—if indeed she has them. How she chooses to turn those feelings around and finds control is up to her and could encompass a variety of scenarios. Some women have chosen to explore this sense of powerlessness through the medium of performance and exposure, both in the public eye as well as in the privacy of their bedrooms. In fact there are many women that have felt compelled to engage in sexual exploration by taking on the role of voyeur (e.g. photographing themselves naked, learning to strip tease and performing or practicing in public, or taping themselves having sex). It is not just a trend to do so, it is a real curiosity that many women feel—and perhaps feel grateful that they don’t have to be quite so embarrassed about taking a closer look at themselves as the “objects” they’ve been told they are. By looking at themselves from the opposite side of the lens, some women discover, in this way, that they are not at all objects.

If a career in sex work, a weekend of tit flashing, or even a private session with her digital camera allows some women come to a deeper, more powerful understanding of themselves as sexual agents and controllers of their sexuality, as opposed to observers and reactors to situations imposed upon them by societal (read mainstream) expectations of female sexuality, then more power to them. I have spoken to far too many women—fellow performers, young women coming of age, and close friends—who have felt compelled to explore in such ways. They show that sex work, exposure, and public sexual display are sometimes extremely empowering acts. Just because a woman arrives at the fact that she wields her sexuality like a sword does not mean that this is the only thing she wields. I’m willing to believe there are plenty of college-age women who have flashed their tits once and gone on to be highly respected women in fields wholly unrelated to sex work or performance.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t see the mainstreaming of a particular type of sex culture. I’ll even confess that some of my interest in the sex industry may have been born out of the last five years’ explosion of “everyone’s” fascination with sex culture (not only the mainstream but also academia). However, my role models certainly are not and were never Sex in the City, Charlie’s Angels, Playboy or any of the “mainstream” girl-power commodities you write about. My role models were women artists, writers, and scholars who are also feminists. My role models were the women I read in my Feminist Theory classes at Berkeley, Women Studies courses taught by Caren Kaplan, Laura Perez, Ananya Roy and other Post Colonial Feminist Scholars; numerous books such as Whores and Other Feminists (ed. Jill Nagle), Skin by Dorothy Allison; and performance artist sex radicals such as Annie Sprinkle, her partner Elizabeth Stevens, Karen Finley, and Sophie Calle.

The truth is, mass culture consumerism has never been a good feminist. And I don’t just mean the obviously banal shows like MTV’s Flavor of Love and Girls Gone Wild. I’m also taking about the less “raunchy”—if I’m to use your word—shows like Sex in the City, Ally McBeal, Charlie’s Angels, and Oprah. None of these shows, even Oprah’s renowned exposé on FGM or support of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, have provided a particularly radical critique of gender roles or queer sexuality. The women (and men) who have produced radical feminist and queer art have been victims of condensation and censorship by mainstream corporate America as well as by anti-porn feminists. The result is that anti-porn feminists have sometimes inadvertently come to align themselves with Republican, conservative America in the same backwards way that you show how raunch culture is seemingly uncomplicated by America’s swing to the puritanical right. But you didn’t quite nail it on the head. It’s not just that people’s political ideas are a “reflection of the way they wish things were in America, rather than a product of the way they actually experience it (p.29).” It’s that money makes the world go ‘round and Christian America is more closely aligned with Capitalist America than it is with political policies that genuinely promote peace and love. And neither are Girls Gone Wild in line with the cutting edge of sex-positive feminism.

Unfortunately, as former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen writes in her brilliant book, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights, “history shows that when women’s rights advocates form alliances with conservatives over an issue such has pornography, prostitution, or temperance, they promote the conservatives’ antifeminist goals, relegating women to traditional sexual and gender roles.”

What exactly can we do about those corporate controlled shows and materials that don’t queer our genders sexualities or roles? Absolutely nothing. Censorship, of anyone, censors everyone. In my mind, it’s much more important to keep making the gender-queer post-porn some of us sex-positive feminists are making (and not getting the big bucks for). Performance artist Karen Finley, one of the NEA Four, is one example of an artist who hasn’t been accepted by corporate America or by anti-porn feminists. To again quote Nadine Strossen, “The performance art of Karen Finley involves exhibition of her own body, smearing food on herself, and inserting objects into herself. Although Finley’s performance pieces are angry protests against sexual abuse, violence, and discrimination again women, they could well be regarded as in themselves sexually degrading under the MacDworkin model law.” She writes further that, “procensorship feminists’ views that women who disagree with them are being manipulated as tools of “pimps” or “pornographers” and are not thinking for ourselves, conveys at least as subordinating or degrading a view of women as does the pornography they decry (33).”

In a similar way, you make the fatal mistake of grouping all women who engage with sexuality in any way—even women and bois who are gender-queer—into your “analysis” of the widespread influence of raunch culture. You undermine the work of women who really have “figured out internally what we want from sex” (as you advocate in your conclusion), who are critical feminist writers, artists and performers, and have read and loved feminist theory (not “girl power” television programs or “girl power” pop bands). You undermine women who have interpreted that theory right into a public exploration of their sexuality. A reader who doesn’t know about gender radical persons or post-porn feminist politics might come away from your book remembering nothing more than the incendiary, cliché statements about strippers who apparently spin “greasily around a pole wearing a facial expression not found in nature (p. 98).” A non-critical reader might not realize how much work feminist sex workers and sex-positive feminists have done to dispel the myths you reinforce.

You’ve titled the book Female Chauvinist Pigs presumably because you dislike women who are “chauvinist,” i.e. hate on other women. But what kind of loving feminist, if she genuinely respects sex workers, has to “[fight] back the urge to yell, [you look] ‘like a dirty whore’ (160)” to another woman? I was more than just a little offended with how easily you came up with derogatory statements towards women who engage with their sexuality in ways other than how you personally would choose to. But I guess this kind of talk boosts sales?

Perhaps it’s when you talk about transgendered persons that you really show your true colors (and your ignorance). Take page 128 when you say, “I was expecting him to look like the other FTM’s I’d met: like butch women with something somehow off.” If I read your book knowing nothing about the genderqueer community, I might come away thinking that transitioning is just a trend, nonmonogamy means every sexual partner is another notch on the belt, and once again, that the G/L/B/Trans community is nothing but “promiscuous.” And finally, make no mistake about it, promiscuity is bad and antifeminist.

In fact, genderqueer persons are pioneers in illustrating—in yet another way—that women don’t come in one set of clothing, shape, size, color or role. It’s a gross misunderstanding to say that bois, or other genderqueer persons just want to be “like a guy.” Sure, trend may play a role in allowing curious persons to go one step beyond curiosity into making the decision to transition. But for the most part, the life-changing decision to transition is taken very seriously, with real life consequences. Do some people make the “wrong” choice and realize that their flirt with the other gender should be short lived? Of course—but some people also marry the “wrong” person, agree to monogamy, and end up having a series of affairs. Having sex with multiple partners throughout one’s sexual life does not mean that those sexual partners become “notches on a belt” or sexual conquests. It’s possible to have loving sex with many people in the course of a lifetime. It’s possible to have intimacy with more than one person at one time. Again, of course there are always people who make mistakes along the way, who end up having sexual experiences that are “meaningless” or just “lack-luster.” You give examples of people “caught in the scene” and the people that get hurt. But this is not particular to nonmonogamy, this is particular to the power relationship inherently involved in any sexual relationship—within or outside of a marriage, monogamous or nonmonogamous.

Why would you focus on transgendered persons and nonmonogamy as a sign of the evils of raunch culture when you could equally show how monogamous relationships and restrictive gender roles reinforce a capitalist, isolated, patriarchic familial and societal structure—the very capitalist structure that wants to keep families together in front of the television? By concentrating (and tattling on) on alternative communities you once again side with conservative America.

On the other side, you also manage to undermine the ability of a young girl who hasn’t got it all figured it that it’s okay to play around with her sexuality—even if she doesn’t plan to pursue a career in sex work. Meanwhile her male counterpart is almost never slapped on the wrist for playing around. You’re not fully giving complexity credence; that, despite mainstream America, not everyone loves a Playboy Bunny, not all girls wear thongs or dress “provocatively,” that some trends have nothing to do with skimpy clothing, and that sometimes an experience contains elements of both power and disempowerment and sometimes as humans we explore these grey areas in order to understand ourselves better.

I have to ask, why doesn’t anyone consider that girls are sexualizing themselves because they’ve spent far too many years being sexualized by society at large and they’re at least playing around with it themselves as a response. At the end of the day, some girls choose to experiment with highly sexualized products, TV shows and experiences because this, in some way, helps her to understand who she wants to be. Of course, she might make mistakes along the way. A girl who flashes her tits on Spring Break might be pushing a boundary that she realizes later didn’t feel good—or maybe it did. But at least a girl can make mistakes as she grows without feeling like she has to silence her feelings on the matter entirely or feel utterly embarrassed. She may not think it was her shiniest moment, but let’s also hope she doesn’t live the rest of her life taking that moment so seriously and demoralizing herself so much that she believes it makes or breaks how intelligent, complex, interesting, or even “feminist” she is. I don’t agree that the “rise of raunch culture” has meant girls are less sexually aware than before or less empowered than they were ten years ago. While it’s true that the rise of raunch culture may not have brought enlightenment with it, I think girls are smarter about female sexual enjoyment, female power to initiate sex, and the basics of safe sex.

While I think you’ve raised some interesting points, your gross generalizations have, in my eyes, reinforced negative stereotypes about sex-positive, queer, and radical feminists that actually are on your side when it comes to your take on consumerist sexuality. You’ve been heralded as “feminism’s newest and most provocative voice,” and frankly this scares me, almost as much as when they said that about Ally McBeal.

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