I’ve written a previous entry on the myth of female power, especially as related to “sex workers.” My main point there was that objectification is not real power.
This is all based on the justification that “the inferiors are really in control,” that the inferiors are “empowered” by being able to choose how and when to give away their freedom. As Huff Yupp (a male ally) says, “[t]he modern definition of empowerment seems to be ‘Give the oppressor what he wants before he can take it – that way, it was your choice.’” Some incredibly indoctrinated men may even consider rape as a form of empowerment.
I have progressively come to realize that this refrain is not limited to “sex workers” and other obvious cases of objectification but is actually a pretty common rationalization used across the board, insofar as gender and sexual activity are concerned.
So take the idea of women as sexual gatekeepers. Men innately want sex and women innately do not want sex, therefore women are “in control” of sex; by remaining celibate they are free to choose the best man to marry, and men have to accept that state of affairs. Under that framework, any woman who does not want a man is just aberrant.
Women are the victims of widespread sexual abuse and rape, partially on the basis of the gatekeeper belief. But according to that belief, women are really the ones in control because they can dictate the terms of sexual activity. So there’s the “inferiors have control” justification.
Now take weaponized femininity, the concept that got me started onto these connections. Weaponized femininity is a liberal feminist concept which promotes femininity, not as submission but as a weapon, that femininity performed within a feminist worldview can be “empowering.”
Weaponized femininity can serve to make libfems feel better about performing femininity due to the strong and constant social pressures they are subjected to, and I do not mean to attack that comfort at all. But it leads to a confusion between actual power and secondary gains: yes, being able to get the rewards, such as they are, for performing is a good thing, but it is a result of women’s inferior status.
It only makes sense to say that “Beyonce feminism” is empowering precisely because record artists like Beyonce can reap the rewards of fame and money from their feminine submission. Average women, let alone disabled or marginalized women, are not in a position to do so. Weaponized femininity is just a broader version of the “sex workers have power over their customers” rhetoric.
Now look at this belief, widespread amongst BDSM advocates, that “subs are really in control.” I think this also follows the same pattern of rationalization than the other examples. It’s all about the inferior (the sub) being “really in control” because they are the gatekeepers, in this case because they can use their safe word to stop the sexual acts at any time.
But this is a stupid argument. Everyone has the right to say “no” to a sexual encounter at any time, so safe words are merely window dressing, a reinforcement of the notion of safety to distract from what’s really going on.
A comparison may be useful here. Abused women can also “leave any time they want.” Of course they usually don’t do so because leaving is more dangerous for their safety than staying, but one could argue that they are just as much “in control” of the abuse as a sub.
Now I know that BDSM advocates want to tell you that BDSM is not physical abuse, sexual abuse or rape, and that it’s perfectly safe and everyone in BDSM is happy. While we know that’s a lie, and there are plenty of former BDSMers to confirm the failings of the BDSM cult, we also know that the actions performed are physically equivalent to physical and sexual abuse, and victims of BDSM exhibit the same mental damage as victims of abuse.
I realize that it may seem a long way to go from women as sexual gatekeepers to BDSM abuse, but they all partake of the same basic justification: that the submissive party is really in control either because they perform their submission well and get something out of it (“sex workers,” weaponized femininity) or because they have “veto power” (women as gatekeepers, BDSM).
What creates some confusion, I think, is that getting some money or having a veto over some interaction are, in the abstract, both forms of power. So it may seem as if they are both “empowering.” But if you don’t look at the situation in a purely abstract sense and instead look at it in its context, as part of a hierarchical system, then the illusion disappears.