This is a repost of an article I posted at /r/GenderEgalitarian here: http://www.reddit.com/r/GenderEgalitarian/comments/1t8frm/the_subjectobject_dichotomy_feminine_power_and/
I would like to point out that this is my last Reddit Repost! In the future all of my articles will be original content exclusively for GendErratic.
In hindsight I have one regret about this article: I over-focused on one instance of a pattern (specifically the Edmonton SlutWalk telling Men’s Rights Edmonton to go away). I was trying to propose a theory to address a pattern of pervasive “I’m a slut but NOT FOR MEN” behavior… perhaps we could call this “slut-shaming in the name of sluttiness” (any suggestions as to a nice-sounding label for this phenomenon would be awesome!). Basically, a knee-jerk hostility to the idea of men benefitting from sexually liberated women, and things like the advocacy of female sexual liberation but consistently treating male sexuality as inherently problematic.
I focused far too much on the SlutWalk (admittedly because doing so allowed me to use rather witty subtitles), however I think my theory with respect to the pattern holds up. Anyway, here’s the article!
When Men’s Rights Edmonton showed up to support the Edmonton SlutWalk, they brought with them a banner which stated “We Love Sluts.” Several SlutWalkers told them to go away; the banner apparently made the SlutWalkers uncomfortable.
This incident raises an interesting question.
SlutWalk is a feminist event. The feminist movement claims to be against “slut-shaming” (i.e. condemning women for having lots of sex). Many feminists embrace the label “sex-positive” and encourage women to explore their sexuality. So why would a pro-slut message… a message which is literally the opposite of slut-shaming… cause discomfort in an event which is meant to be an archetypal example of sex-positive feminism? Why would sex-positive feminist women be made uncomfortable by “We Love Sluts”?
After all, would marchers in a gay pride parade be made uncomfortable if supporters held a banner reading “We Love Gays”?
Some have argued that the problem was not the message, but the messenger; the message “We Love Sluts” was being delivered by male representatives of a men’s rights organization. However, most feminists argue that “slut-shaming” is part of the Patriarchy, so wouldn’t pro-slut men be seen as a positive development?
Indeed, the pattern of allegedly pro-sexual-liberation feminists seeming to reflexively be prudish is hardly new. Why, however, does this paradoxical pattern exist?
In this article, I will propose an explanation. I will argue that traditional gender norms (which treat men as subjects and women as objects) do not completely disempower women (as most feminists typically allege); they in fact imply a specific vision of feminine power (distinct from agency, which is traditionally masculine power). This specific kind of feminine power is the ability to enlist male agency in the service of one’s own ends and thus the exertion of agency by proxy. One of the ways in which women have historically enlisted male agency in their service is through sex appeal, essentially “trading” sex in order to get agency by proxy in return. The ultimate consequence of this is that women have been culturally trained to see power in terms of their “agency profit,” i.e. getting as much agency by proxy as possible for as little sex as possible; this in turn means that women instinctively see men getting lots of sex as a loss of feminine power (which is analagous to bargaining power/market power/producer surplus in economics).
The paradoxical pattern of “proud sluts” being made uncomfortable by pro-slut males is due to the fact that traditional gender norms make being a “slut” a position devoid of traditional feminine power. Traditional feminist analysis of the gender system, which typically denies the existence of feminine power and typically casts slut-shaming as an attempt by men to control the sexuality of women, lacks the conceptual space to accomodate (and thus critically address) this feature of the traditional gender system.
Understanding, criticizing and (eventually) rejecting this feature of the gender system requires the acknowledgement of traditional feminine power, the role that sex-as-incentive plays in maintaining this feminine power, and the role that women themselves play in enforcing this element of the traditional gender system. Women who sincerely embrace sex-positivity owe it to themselves to follow this line of inquiry further.
Part 1: The Subject-Object Dichotomy
The basic gender role which has been consistent throughout all human history is the Subject-Object (or Hyperagent-Hypoagent, or Agent-Patient) Dichotomy, which can be briefly summarized as “men do, women are.” Masculinity is understood as a platonic ideal which demands men act to maintain congruence with it, whilst femininity is simply an innate trait of female-bodied persons. Men act, and women are acted upon.
The reason this gender role came about is because both masculinity and femininity were conceptualized as (essentially) ways in which men and women respectively contributed to society. The feminine contribution – the ability to bear children and thus grow the population – was innate to female biology, whilst the masculine contribution – producing food and protecting the women and children – was not biologically given and thus had to demonstrated through risky action of uncertain outcome.
The gender system ascribes value to the fulfillment of both the masculine and feminine functions. However, because a woman is assumed to be capable of fulfilling her function of incubating the future, women are ascribed an innate value by the gender system. Males are not assumed to be capable of fulfilling their function; they must prove it. Therefore, males are seen as ultimately expendable.
This gender system reserves the power of agency exclusively for men. However, agency is a requirement of human life; in a world where material needs exist and resources don’t just materialize in response to cries of “I want X!,” teleological action is unavoidable. Women have to provide for their needs too, but for a woman to directly go out and provide for them is gender-transgressive to at least some degree. As such, the system mandates that women secure their needs by trading off their innate feminine value and convincing men to do things for them.
Part 2: Feminine Power as Agency By Proxy
It is commonly said that an action video game is a “male power fantasy.” By the same token, one can argue that a romance novel is a “female power fantasy.” The typical romance novel ultimately is about having an extremely strong, powerful, competent, desirable man being so hopelessly devoted to a woman that he will do anything for her.
This pattern even holds in romances like “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades Of Grey” where the woman is often seen as being controlled. Edward’s creepy stalker behavior is intended to underscore his devotion to Bella – how he will do anything at all to be near her, how much he needs her. Christian Grey offers to sub for Anastasia just to keep her with him and he eventually gives up most of his kinks for her.
Even if one takes a look at pornography, one can find that in much femdom porn, the dominant partner (the woman) is typically being the passive partner; the submissive male is exercising agency to cater to her whims.
Let us take a look at the most groan-inducingly gender-traditional childhood fantasies; young males typically dream of being firefighters, soldiers and superheroes, i.e. agents who save and protect people. The equivalent feminine fantasy is the princess, who is an object of adoration whom occupies a place of status merely by birth and doesn’t really do much other than stand around and look pretty and get waited on by servants and protected by bodyguards. Can a princess be truly described as powerless when Prince Charmings will risk life and limb to save her?
As Anita Sarkeesian argued in her Master’s Thesis, the “Strong Woman” archetype in action films and video games practices a male form of power (i.e. agency) under the traditional gender system. Feminine power is found not in the exercise of agency but in the ability to enlist the agency of men.
Part 3: Sex As An Enlistment Perk
So, what traits enable women to enlist the agency of men? The fact that the male gender role pretty much glorifies rescuing vulnerable women and soothing hurt female feelings certainly helps, but what traits held by a woman specifically make it easier for that woman to enlist male aid?
Let’s face it: if a woman is sexually attractive, it helps.
A simple biological fact is that men, due to the average higher levels of testosterone in their systems, want more sex than the average woman (women with higher-than-average sex drives have higher-than-average amounts of testosterone (yes, testosterone is found in both sexes!)). For many men, sexual stimulation can be a need on par with the need to eat.
This difference between the sexes, combined with the fact that men are culturally trained to pursue women to validate their manhood, sets up what might be described as a marketplace for sex with women on the “supply” side and men on the “demand” side; after all, prostitution has been an historically female-supplied industry with male consumers. Ceteris Paribus, a man would rather get a blowjob on his third date than on his fourth date, and a woman would rather a man buy her four dinners than three dinners before she gives him a blowjob (assuming she herself gains less marginal utility from giving a blowjob than from the meal).
And so the basic terms of trade are simple: women exchange sex in return for male agency (or the products thereof, such as money). Of course women in fact desire some sex, but under the traditional gender system this is essentially ignored (women are the objects, not subjects, of desire). As women are in fact rational economic agents, their objective is to get the highest amount of agency for the lowest amount of sex (vice-versa for men), because this represents the most effective ability to enlist male agency (being more sexually attractive raises one’s market price and thus increases one’s effectiveness at enlisting agency).
For those skeptical of the proposition that traditional feminine power is ultimately about getting the most agency out of men for as little sexual satisfaction (for the man) as possible, I again offer the example of Femdom porn and how it often has the domme controlling and denying the man’s orgasms whilst she kicks back and he does the work.
Part 4: The Pussy Cartel, Sexual Market Dynamics, and Slut-Shaming
Traditionally, feminists have argued that slut-shaming is a product of the patriarchy. This argument has two distinct problems; first, we live in a stud-praising culture and are members of a species where men have higher sex drives, which would seem to suggest that men would want more sex from women and thus slut-shaming would be against male interests. Second, women are the primary slut-shamers; the patriarchy theory would seem to suggest that men would be the primary agents of slut-shaming.
In reality, as both economist Andrea Callisto (http://theumlaut.com/2013/07/02/the-economics-of-slut-shaming/) argued and Dr Tracy Vailliancourt’s recent study (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/science/a-cold-war-fought-by-women.html?_r=2&) has shown, women are the primary slut-shamers because as explained above, women want to maintain their market power with respect to sex (i.e. make the market price as high as possible). The same micro-level dynamic, where individual women exert power by trying to enlist male agency through sex as efficiently as possible (i.e. getting the most agency for the least sex, or in economic terms getting the greatest Producer Surplus), applies at the macro-level where women shame and humiliate other women who charge lower prices for sex than they do. This dynamic, which Callisto correctly describes as a cartel, is about increasing female power under traditional gender norms (by making smaller amounts of sex able to enlist larger amounts of male agency – raising the market price of sex, in other words).
The implication? Sluthood is opposed to traditional female power. Sluts increase competition and lower the market price of sex, lower the Producer Surplus which can be extracted, and weaken the female bargaining position.
Part 5: SlutWalk, Slut-Shaming and Slut-Loving
We now return to the fundamental problem this essay wishes to address: why were the (presumptively sex-positive) SlutWalkers made so uncomfortable by Men’s Rights Edmonton’s statement that they love sluts?
The answer: Cafeteria (or perhaps subconscious) Gender Traditionalism.
Typical feminist analysis essentially ignores or misses a logical consequence of the subject-object dichotomy; specifically, feminine power as Agency By Proxy. As such, said analysis doesn’t comprehend the effects that this has on the sexual marketplace. By not confronting this feature of the traditional gender system, this feature of the system has been left unchallenged (fish not being able to see the water they swim in) and as such the mentality has been internalized by many people who claim to reject traditional gender norms.
Hence, presumably sex-positive SlutWalking feminists see the “we love sluts” sign and all of that subconscious gender traditionalism is immediately thrown into overdrive.
The sign points out that men love sluts, and thus genuine sex-positivity does men a favor by increasing the supply and thus lowering the market price of sex, which works against feminine power as defined by the traditional gender system. When people are made to feel less powerful, they generally feel uncomfortable, particularly when they’re participating in an event where they claim to embrace the thing which disempowers them.
Part 6: Conclusions, Implications and Further Questions
In summary, MRE’s statement that “We Love Sluts” caused discomfort because it played into a (perhaps subconsciously held) meme complex about feminine power promoted by the traditional gender system; since female sexual power is about using sex to extract male agency in return, a “slut” is not a sexually powerful woman but rather a woman who is cheapening herself and other women by acquiescing to men’s desires without getting enough in exchange.
The reaction to MRE’s sign demonstrated, rather unfortunately, that the self-proclaimed “feminists” who participated in the Edmonton SlutWalk still accepted several components of the traditional gender system. I speculate that this indicates a significant blind-spot in feminist theory; specifically, how the gender system accomodates a specific type of “feminine power.” Gender theorists of any label who truly wish to fully analyze and oppose the traditional gender system would benefit from further studying this aspect of gender roles.
The event also shows that sex-positive thinkers (particularly sex-positive feminists) should oppose the traditional gender system, for this system encourages women to perceive sex as disempowering and something to be endured as a means to an end, rather than as a pleasurable and joyful experience.
The fact that traditional gender roles encourage women to experience power through extracting the highest possible “price” for sex may be relevant for several other gender questions. First, in the debate over sexualized female protagonists in video games, how much female resentment of these protagonists is really a reaction to a perceived threat (i.e. a woman who does not even need male agency since she possesses that herself, yet seems rather able/willing to satisfy men’s desires)? Second, can sex-negative feminism (with its attempts to control pornography and prostitution) be explained as an epiphenomenon of this aspect of traditional gender roles? Third, can the paradoxical situation of a woman dressing in revealing clothing and complaining about men sneaking a peek (“I don’t dress for men!”) be explained by this feature of the gender system?
Comments and feedback are welcome.
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Overall an excellent article. Not much to disagree with, but a little to add.
“Traditionally, feminists have argued that slut-shaming is a product of the patriarchy. This argument has two distinct problems; first, we live in a stud-praising culture and are members of a species where men have higher sex drives, which would seem to suggest that men would want more sex from women and thus slut-shaming would be against male interests.”
The reason men slut-shame is to ensure their chosen sex partner remains theirs. Slutty behavior in women indicates a lack of sexual loyalty. If a man is going to invest his time and resources in a woman, he wants a return on his investment, in both the short and long terms. Further, if the couple reproduces, he want insurance that the child he is supporting is actually his and the security that the mother will not take the child and leave. Thus slut shaming goes against the short term interest, but preserves the long term interests. Further, while men engage in slut shaming, many will take advantage of the sexual opportunity sluts provide (cheap sex with no long term strings), but will not even consider long term investment in a slut.
Feminists view this as Patriarchal because it appears that the men are using the sluts for their own sexual gratification without paying a high enough price. But they are paying a price, albeit a low one. One might view sluts as the thrift shops of the sexual marketplace while feminists would prefer all women be Tiffany’s. The more radical the feminist, the higher the price that should be paid. For some, no price is high enough (the “all sex is rape” crowd).
“why were the (presumptively sex-positive) SlutWalkers made so uncomfortable by Men’s Rights Edmonton’s statement that they love sluts?”
While I think your analysis of feminine power as “agency by proxy” has merit in this explanation, it doesn’t quite go far enough. I think the answer lies in a derivative of the most radical feminist belief that “all sex is rape therefore all men are rapists” trope which is the most extreme version of “agency by proxy” because it requires men to perform service for women without getting anything in return. The more radical the feminist views held by the slut, the capable she is of resolving the dilemma (or cognitive dissonance) created by these feminist views that conflict with “sluttiness” (selling sex too cheaply). Therefore support for sluts from men, particularly men viewed as anti-feminnist, becomes “rapey.” Don’t forget, slutwalks began in response to alleged victim blaming of rape victims..
I’m not saying that men cannot or never do slut-shame. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is PRIMARILY an inter-female behavior.
Like you said, men benefit from sluts (through sex), but a longterm monogamous woman implies 1) supporting her (at least traditionally) as well as 2) giving up sluts, in exchange for paternal certainty (which is only really a value to those men who want kids, and whilst some do, some don’t, and in today’s world people in general are less interested in starting a family). So the cost-benefit analysis of ‘sluts’ (to men) is a far less clear proposition.
Compare this to women – ‘slut’hood offers more sexual stimulation (something which the average woman is generally less “extremely hungry” for relative to the average man) but implies a sacrifice of potential agency enlistment as well as social scorn from other women (and some men). Sluthood in other women certainly implies a loss of producer surplus as well. The cost-benefit analysis is significantly more negative.
As such it makes sense that women are the primary slut-shamers. You are right that monogamous commitment provided some benefits to men too but it seems that in general women have less to gain and more to lose from sluthood.
I’ve been trying to find anything to add to or criticize about this article for several days (not constantly of course, but it’s been on my mind), and I really can’t come up with anything substantive. I mean that as a compliment; you’ve described and explained the issue very clearly.
I find the first of your open questions at the end most intriguing. It suggests that characters like Lara Croft are actually too powerful for feminists’ liking. They have the “male” type of power (agency) as well as the “female” type (sex appeal), and because they have and use the first type, they cheapen the second type by flaunting it (and using it? I don’t play these games so I don’t know the extent of this). And since most women only have the second type, they understandably resent the cheapening of their only type of power.
It brings up the tendency among women to tear down rivals rather than try to build themselves up (think Mean Girls). Whereas men are powerful because they do things and can thus always get better at doing them to increase their chances of success in competition with other men, women’s power is (perceived as) innate and therefore fixed. Their only option is to reduce others’ power because theirs can’t be increased.
You’ll notice also that feminists will try to shut down discussions that aren’t going their way rather than try harder to argue more effectively, or engage in violence to stop people they see as their enemies rather than prove them wrong or just out-compete them. In the area of sex appeal and attracting a mate, trying harder is just as likely to make a woman less attractive as more (it’s gender-transgressive at the very least), so women and girls believe on a fundamental (instinctual?) level that trying harder won’t help them. Feminism doesn’t deviate from this because, as you point out, it has a blind spot there. I imagine that’s because its existence as a movement depends on women having no power at all, so admitting to the proxy power would lead to feminism’s obsolescence.