Agency is magic and so is twerking

amber rose

Another day, another article arguing that criticism of sexualization and objectification is proof that men are afraid of women’s expressed sexuality and that women are jealous.

What an innovative, groundbreaking notion.

A recent article at Huffington Post defends a twerking video model, Amber Rose, posted on YouTube for her husband Wiz Khalifa’s birthday and Beyoncé’s pole-dancing at the VMAs, on the basis of “agency.”

The author writes, of Beyoncé’s “sometimes provocative dancing”:

‘”What is she teaching her daughter?” some asked, pearls tightly clutched. I would answer, “Agency. Independence. Talent.” But others, it would seem, say watching her mother dance and sing in front of millions — while making millions — is teaching Blue not to respect and value her body. Even when married and a mother — the supposed safeguards against being called a whore — Beyoncé’s “goodness” and motherhood are called into question.”’

According to liberal feminist gospel, twerking conveys “agency,” as does pole-dancing on stage in front of your two year old. “Agency,” being that elusive concept that only those with a four-year arts degree seem to understand. The rest of us, informed by empirical evidence, are slightly concerned about statistics showing that younger and younger girls are increasingly dealing with eating disorders and anxiety, and are being pressured and coerced into performing sex acts and pornified versions of sexuality.

Forget the kill-joy rubbish statistics, this is about AGENCY. And PEARLS. What do pearls have to do with agency? Let me break it down for you:

The liberal feminist representation of “agency” proposes that anytime a woman performs using what we see as “sexuality,” she displays independence, power and agency. If you don’t agree, it’s because you are: (1) a fear-ridden, sex-deprived male, (2) a pearl clutching, sex-deprived conservative, or (3) a jealous woman (possibly sex-deprived).

Negative sex-stereotypes abound. The author claims to want to end negative sex-stereotypes and virgin-whore dichotomies (which feminists have been arguing against for decades), but does the opposite.

The idea is that this dichotomy is smashed because Amber Rose and Beyoncé are wives and mothers but also twerk.

The author asks the reader:

“Are you angry because she’s doing what should never be done [twerking and also being a mother], or are you angry because she’s doing what we should all be allowed to do but feel we cannot?”

I would hazard a guess that many women are somewhat tired of the “post baby body,” “yummy mummy,” “MILF” and “cougar” obsessed world. Even in motherhood, women cannot catch a break from the unrelenting obsession with “sexy” — objectifying mothers is now having drastic impacts on women’s health.

The author then asks:

 “…are you angry because [Amber Rose] is standing with one foot firmly in the mother-wife camp, and the other in the camp that is half-naked and booty-shaking?”

Is this a trick question? I thought we were denouncing the virgin-whore dichotomy, but by the end of the article, these stereotypes seem to be more intact than ever.

These kinds of stereotypes — “virgins,” “prudes,” “MILFs,” “pearl clutchers,” “hos” — have no place in an equal society. Such slurs are designed to control and silence women and they are no more or less acceptable whether they are hurled by misogynists on YouTube or from self-described feminists.

Indeed, Beyoncé has made history as an amazing entertainer while simultaneously bringing feminism into the limelight — it is a momentous achievement. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look critically at what she represents and the messages she conveys.

How many tertiary-educated feminists does it take to see that celebrity culture produces (and is a product of) harmful cultural norms including sexism and racism? Norms that deserve to be interrogated rather than uncritically promoted by feminists?

Many liberal feminists seem to get stuck in the mindset that there are only two ways to talk about sexuality: (1) the conservative, “repressed” way: never have sex, or (2) the liberal/”liberated” way: everything “sex” is good, no matter what.

… There’s that dichotomy again…

In reality, there are a million ways to own one’s sexuality that doesn’t require pole-dancing in front of millions of people. Pole-dancing, at the end of the day, really has nothing to do with female sexuality, and everything to do with strip club culture — i.e. male culture, i.e. performing sexualization for the male gaze. It does not, in any way, threaten the status quo.

The recent pole-dancing trend in music videos, exercise classes and stagettes not only celebrates the sexist status quo, but it glamorises sexual exploitation. Research conducted by an ex-stripper showed over half of the dancers had experienced digital rape on the job as well as other forms of verbal and physical assault. More recent research shows that dancers are expected to maintain conventional beauty ideals, often resorting to dangerous surgeries and extreme weight loss measures in order to do so. I guess these women didn’t get the memo about fun feminist agency.

children's pole dancingWomen have the right to be critical of this increasingly pornographic culture. Parents have the right to rage against the pressure on girls to sexualize themselves for the male gaze. Women who are critical of these messages are not necessarily “anti-sex” or prudes – the reality is more complex than what that binary offers.

There are people who like sex but who are also critical of sexual exploitation. Indeed, as it turns out, some people can envisage a sexuality that doesn’t require market-driven, male-centric, or porn-fueled performance.

Take Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who went undercover to examine how the sex trade was recruiting younger and younger children to fuel the demand for more extreme porn. Cacho felt it necessary to state, “I love sex and eroticism,” during a recent talk she gave in Sydney – probably out of fear that liberal feminists would dredge up the “pearl clutching” line dare she breathe a critical word on porn or “sex.” Cacho showed how the broader culture was leading to younger children being taken advantage of and exploited, whether it be by pimps in Mexico or the kids who accidentally stumble across child-rape porn, due to porn sites linking kid-friendly search terms to their images.

Cacho is an example of a person who enjoys sex, yet is critical of a culture that uses a one-dimensional view of “sex” to sell anything and everything (increasingly to younger and younger boys and girls). The dichotomy that positions sex as something we are either “for” or “against” is unnecessary.

Despite oft-repeated concerns about sexual repression and pearl clutching, sex is no longer hidden or repressed by Puritanism. In fact this has rarely been the case since the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s. In today’s world, “sex” has become a ubiquitous cultural narrative. It is the narrative that tells us women’s breasts should be used for porny ads, but not for breastfeeding. It’s online, on TV, in the newspaper, and in your face 24/7 — used to sell everything from porn, to mini pole-dancing kits for kids, to peaches (yes, that’s actually a thing).

While many liberal feminists are critical of exploitative capitalism, they remain uncritical of the capitalist exploitation of sex and sexuality. How can you be anti-capitalism but pro-commodification of sex? According to liberal feminist gospel, workers all around the world lack agency, except for objectified and sexualised girls and women. Even young girls in the sex trade, I have been told, are just “underage workers” with agency. For a movement that claims to be against rape-culture and the patriarchal status quo, this hypocrisy is astounding.

Liberal feminism promotes a market-driven, one-dimensional view of male-centric sex. Rather than promoting diversity or dissidence in women’s sexuality, it decorates the patriarchal status quo with the label “agency.”

Though it might be tempting, assigning “agency” to anything and everything only serves to eschew a more critical analysis of the structural realities of oppression. Tacking the idea of “equality” onto a system that is founded upon structural inequality does nothing but solidify and disguise the inequality. The idea that women must “feel empowered” in disempowering situations is nothing but victim-blaming with a new name.

Patriarchy demands increasing access to women’s bodies, at increasingly younger ages. The sexual revolution prepared men for a world where women say yes to sex, but it did not prepare them for women’s right to say no. Reframing this male entitlement and demand as agency is just a PR campaign for patriarchy.

It’s not as simple as agentic vs. non-agentic. Expecting women to “feel agency” in situations of structural oppression does nothing but pacify true resistance. Liberal feminists are doing women the ultimate disservice by conjuring up stereotypes of pearl-clutchers vs. pole-dancers. Pressuring women to toe the line lest they be labeled jealous pearl-clutchers is the work of misogynists, not feminists.

Laura McNally is a psychologist, consultant, author and PhD candidate. Her current work draws upon critical theory to examine the limitations of corporate social responsibility and liberal feminism. She blogs at lauramcnally.com.

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  • lizor

    Thank you so much for this wonderful essay. I had just closed the window on a very disappointing commentary in Salon by Laurie Penny

    She writes –

    “Just when it should be most radical, ‘public feminism’ has become increasingly concerned with a species of thin-lipped censoriousness that posits sex, rather than sexism, as the real problem. The feminist campaigns that attract the most attention and funding are those concerned with stamping out pornography, ending prostitution and preventing the sale of suggestive T-shirts.”

    http://www.salon.com/2014/09/14/mainstream_feminism_is_tepid_and_cowardly_work_sex_race_having_it_all_and_true_liberation/

    Heaven forbid we should be “thin-lipped”!! Bu then again, the fact that porn-critical feminists are getting so much mainstream attention and financial support is a comfort…

    I had not realized that Penny was a sex-pozzer and was feeling quite let down, but your article, Laura, has cheered me. Thanks for tipping the scale back in favour of solid social critique.

    • Meghan Murphy

      AHHH that article made me crazy! It makes no sense at all! Has she lost her brain?

      • I know. I’m pretty sure I have read good stuff from her so I actually spent some time trying to figure out if there were two Laurie Pennys. Alas: nope.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I’ve read lots of good stuff by her! And then there’s this stuff! It’s very confusing. Alien abduction?

          • Lizor

            That makes the most sense. 🙂

  • The Real Cie

    A sexually permissive society is not the same as a liberated society. Women may be more “sexually liberated” than we have been in the past, but we are more objectified than ever. I find the lurid gawping at pregnant celebrities disturbing. There is no respect for these individuals as mothers or as human beings. Ditto the whole “yummy mummy” (gag) thing.
    I am appalled that there is a “pole dancing” kit for children. I realize that pole dancing does not equal stripper. There are athletic pole dancers. However, the picture on the container for the child’s pole dancing kit is clearly meant to imply “sexy.” Little girls should not be encouraged to be “sexy.”
    Being concerned about the fact that women are still viewed as objects and decorations rather than as actual human beings is not being prudish. It is simply identifying a very real problem.

    • bella_cose

      I’ve often thought thay far from being indicative of a sexually liberated society, the constant barrage of hyper-sexualized female bodies, and the ubiquity of porn, all geared towards the male gaze, are evidence of how deeply uncomfortable society is with sex and sexuality. Are people’s imaginations so limited that they can’t conceive of a wide range of sexual expression and that that might actually be sexually liberating?

      • Lizor

        Yup. If there was not such deep sexual shame and repression, “dirty” would have no meaning in reference to sex.

        • Leo

          Yeah, exactly. I don’t think the dichotomy is really one at all – virgin or whore, what’s happening is still that men are controlling women’s sexuality, and defining it in relation to them. LibFems seem to think it’s somehow challenging patriarchal norms for them to be at all sexual, but men never wanted women just not to have sex (the ‘virgin’ was only meant to be a virgin till she married, and then her sexuality belonged to her husband). The overall cultural norms night have shifted, but there’s still the expectation there that women should be ‘sexy’ on male demand – it’s just now moved to be practically all the time, for more men. And both the conservatives and the sex pozzis are still seeing sex as charged with super-special significance.

          Being asexual (probably controversial perspective incoming, but I honestly can’t help it, it just looks different to me than it must to sexual people), this stuff just makes zero sense to me – it’s just sex, and I’m bewildered why there’s such a fuss over it. I’m not even capable of being ‘sex negative’ or prudish in the way they mean, I don’t think, because to do that I’d have to see it as significant in that sense in the first place. To me, it just looks like any other (potentially rather ill-advised, but still) basically hedonistic behaviour, though one that’s presumably more instinctively driven. The idea I’m meant to be, as a feminist, a cheerleader for all these empowerfulled women ‘expressing their sexuality’ sounds beyond ridiculous.

  • J. Renee Bernard

    Beyonce is just another example of a “counterfeit female sexual revolutionary, a gullible liberated girl”-Andrea Dworkin.

  • C.K. Egbert

    Pearl clutching women of the world, unite!

  • Meh

    “What is she teaching her daughter?” some asked, pearls tightly clutched. I would answer, “Agency. Independence. Talent.”

    … BAAAAAHHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    I feel like saying, “Listen here, liberal feminist fucktard – she’s teaching her daughter to shake her asscheeks. Agency, independence and talent are slightly more complicated than that. Go back to your pork pie hat-wearing hipster boyfriend. Thanks”.

    P.S. Great article, BTW.

  • Snow

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you.

  • EEU

    *clutching pearls* tsk tsk tsk

    Great article.

  • I agree. It seems it does take 4 year university degree to understand what “agency” means. I have a university degree and I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

    It’s scary to think that so much of the “feminist” conversation and debates over things that are going on are so tangled up in postmodern rhetoric that I feel that the average person has no idea what is going on and they are just playing along with the circus.

    • C.K. Egbert

      I’d have to disagree. It’s not something even professional philosophers can consistently define (even though they often use the term as Laura McNally critiques, as a term to stop all forms of critique). I think because factually it’s just not a good description of human beings, and as a normative concept it can be extremely damaging (think of valuing human beings only insofar as they are “autonomous,” and see where that puts children or animals and you can get the picture).

  • Missfit

    ‘More recent research shows that dancers are expected to maintain conventional beauty ideals, often resorting to dangerous surgeries and extreme weight loss measures in order to do so. I guess these women didn’t get the memo about fun feminist agency.’

    They did receive the memo. The memo said ‘the fact that you (and plenty of other women) resort to mutilating your body in the name of the male gaze/men’s boners has nothing to do with patriarchal capitalism, it is stricly about your individual agency so it is all good’.

    Fantastic article!

  • Bridget Robertson

    If anyone gets a firm definition for “agency” please leave it for me. I spent a career teaching people to speak in plain language, no jargon. It was considered revolutionary for me to do that. It sems it still is. I am probably one of the least educated women that frequents this site. But, I am smart. Just a simple definition of “agency”.

  • Thanks for all the comments. I’ve said it before and ill say it again, this must be the only online publication in the world where not one comment says BUT CHOICE.
    I would question are we actually more sexually liberated, or is compulsory (porn) sex more socially sanctioned than ever before? In the past compulsory sex was legalised, its no longer legal in most places but it is certainly more legitimised than ever.
    Also, “pork pie hat wearing hipster boyfriends” hahahahahaha.

  • Drake

    I made the mistake of sharing this in a fem group on facebook — ‘Feminist Fightback – for anticapitalist feminism’

    the reactions are beside me –

    Pony Mac “Research conducted by an ex-stripper showed over half of the dancers had experienced digital rape on the job as well as other forms of verbal and physical assault. More recent research shows that dancers are expected to maintain conventional beauty ideals, often resorting to dangerous surgeries and extreme weight loss measures in order to do so. I guess these women didn’t get the memo about fun feminist agency.”

    Au Contraire, I think the *writer* is the person who missed the memo – This article is fairly insulting to sex workers, tbh http://loriadorable.tumblr.com/post/96588738030/isnt-it-possible-to-be-against-the-sex-industry-while .

    Me – Thats the problem — it is not sex work They’re prostituted women.
    And how you saw the writer as insulting, I do not know, she was proving the crap they have to put up with??

    Orsolya Barabás – So, what is sex work according to you?

    me- I honestly do not know, But I have a problem with the word ‘sex-work’ it is not work, these women are coierced into that society and become slaves to it, I’ve read and watched tonnes on women in that industry who struggle to get out, work should be a choice, a choice I feel they are not given.. plus this article is about tweaking/pole dancing being hidden under the demise of agency/empowerment.

    Orsolya Barabás – You could say people in shit or dangerous jobs, like McDonalds are coerced into it by poverty. Why is sex work worse than any other work you wouldn’t necessarily choose? You can’t mix up trafficking with sex work, and you and this article are doing exactly that. Also, notice how she chooses two women who are not white. Colour me surprised. Also, this group does acknowledge sex work as work and this is not open for discussion.

    Me – You are so dellusional, listen to yourself, you are comparing working in maccies to strip clubs/prostitution… you should be targeting your energy at those that create the market, not those who are forced into it.

    I get really annoyed at alot of people who claim to be so called feminists!!

    annoyed.

    • EEU

      At least in McDonalds women are not the meat.

      I know how you feel. I think we’ve all had to deal with such stupidity.

      • Drake

        That was my thought when she compared it to Mcd’s

        Thanks bud 😉

  • Ellesar

    Before I read this I was remembering a friend who did stripping for a while. She said that when she did stripping she was ‘more feminist’ – all she meant by this was that she didn’t shave her legs or armpits!

    Now I guess that by todays standards that IS pretty radical (this was over 20 years ago), but really, I doubt that the gawpers had their consciousness raised by the experience of seeing a slightly hairy woman!

  • “Indeed, Beyoncé has made history as an amazing entertainer while simultaneously bringing feminism into the limelight — it is a momentous achievement.”

    How has Beyonce brought feminism into the limelight? I guess she’s gotten people to talk about feminism by having the appearance of being feminist and by getting liberal feminists to blindly worship her, but if you are trying to suggest that her songs actually promote real feminism, I can’t help but disagree.

    Her “Independent Women” song celebrates individual empowerment, rather than calling for the liberation of women more generally. In fact by bragging about how “independent” her and some other women are, she is implicitly attacking those who aren’t so “independent” and rich (e.g. women on welfare, poor women, women with serious health problems who need to be taken care of, women who live in parts of the world where religious fundamentalists don’t allow them to have jobs, etc.) and creating an us-them mentality between the two groups. All the independent women are supposed to “throw their hands up” at her in a show of solidarity and all the women who aren’t are excluded.

    Then there’s that “Girls Run the World” song, which is really just an absurd MRA conspiracy theory. I’ve already ranted about that song, so I’ll just sum up my critique by asking people to imagine how they would respond if the lyrics were “who runs the world, Jews!” Such a song would, without a doubt, be considered racism (for good reason.)Likewise, Beyonce’s song ought to be considered misogynistic, MRA/liberal feminist (how much difference is there between the two, really?) propaganda. I’ll admit, those are the only feminist-sounding Beyonce songs I know of, since I don’t pay much attention to pop culture. I suspect her other “feminist” songs will have the same basic content, but if I’m wrong feel free to let me which of Beyonce’s songs you think brought “feminism” into the limelight.

    None of this is meant as an attack on Beyonce as a person. She probably didn’t even write those innane lyrics. Some corporate executive probably said “hey, let’s make some songs that have the superficial appearance of being feminist, but make sure that they promotes capitalistic ideal like money-making, personal responsibility and independence and have some super sexy black women sing it. Sex crazed males will love them and liberal feminists will eat them right up, like they did with pornography and prostitution. It will generate great PR. Some anti-welfare conservatives might even endorse it.” Beyonce’s just a figurehead, an actor, playing the role of a sexually empowered, pseudo-feminist, who still manages to promote conversative values. I am sure she’s a perfectly decent human being in real life.

    • Laura mcnally

      Yeah the thing you said at the start about bringing the word feminism back into flavor.
      I got (unfortunately) stuck in a convo about whether Bey as a person was a good feminist. There was a liberal feminist there explaining why she is the BEST feminist, personally I think its a ridiculous and anti-feminist convo to begin with, but she wouldn’t stop. A high profile woman at this event (who shall remain anonymous) has worked internationally on feminist issues and has sat on a board with Beyonce. She responded ‘sorry, she is a lovely person but she is NOT a feminist, she has been exploited a lot and is just trying to cope’.
      End of navel-gazing discussion.

      • “Yeah the thing you said at the start about bringing the word feminism back into flavor.”

        Unfortunately our aim is not to bring the word feminism back into favour (you did mean “favour”, right? Not “flavour”) it’s to bring the concept into favour. A word is just a stand in for a concept. If it does not convey the concept (which in this case is the belief that female human beings should be liberated through the abolition of masculinity and femininity) than it is a useless word. And in Liberal Land it definitely does not convey that concept, or really any concept accept for liberalism.

        Otherwise you’re totally right. Liberals want to make everything personal and you let me drag the conversation into that area it becomes a useless waste of time.

  • Meghan, the link to the Youtube video has a “mailto:” in it which means it tries to open my Microsoft Outlook instead of going to Youtube.

    Thanks for the article, it’s wonderful! I’m now following Laura’s blog on WordPress.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Fixed! Thank you for letting me know!

  • Codi Johnson

    Agree with most everything. Just one question: Did you mean to use ‘depraved’ or were you going for ‘deprived’?

  • Rhonda Dangerfield

    LIBERTARIAN FEMINISTS…. granted Libertarians have tainted the left, unfortunately. but Camille Paglia and Nina Hartley and their buddies have more to do with this vile commericalization and exploitation

  • SaraClue

    When I was self-employed, an “agency” was a place run by men, who sent you out on crappy jobs and took half your pay. That definition still works for me.

  • Twerking is a black cultural tradition, a hybrid of the traditional mapouka dancing style, I believe (among others). There is nothing inherently degrading about it (or anything else – our social conditioning and particular cultural worldview taint/distort our observations and understandings quite a bit), and those outside of that cultural tradition (particularly middle to upper class white people) have no business whatsoever denigrating it.

    We’re out of our element. We don’t understand. This doesn’t belong to us and is not for us to change. Period.

    Calling this ‘degrading’ because you don’t get it is racist and ignorant. Other cultures have different modes of expression. This is okay.

    • bella_cose

      I don’t think anyone is calling anyone else’s cultural tradition degrading. What’s degrading is how it’s represented in mainstream culture. Women in hip hop, regardless of skin tone, aren’t twerking because they give a crap about the cultural history behind it. They do it to shake their asses for men, and perform “empowered female sexuality”.

      Can I just say I’m really getting irritated at the privilege police that go around looking for any minor point they can possibly warp into a huge transgression against some marginalized group. It’s getting ridiculous.

    • Laura Mcnally

      Yonce wasn’t twerking, and the article didn’t have much to do with twerking at all, it was actually a response another article about twerking… so I’m guessing you didn’t read it.
      Also, it had nothing to do with ‘other cultures’ and everything to do with mainstream american pop culture, think Miley Cyrus if it helps.

    • andeväsen

      “Twerking is a black cultural tradition, a hybrid of the traditional mapouka dancing style”

      Nope. This assertion – that twerking is a black cultural tradition – is inaccurate and racist. It is inaccurate because you yourself call twerking a hybrid yet only make reference to Mapouka and nothing else, when the other grandparents of twerking are multicultural. Even if twerking developed only from Mapouka and nothing else, your assertion would still be inaccurate and racist because you’ve equated one dance style from one region in Africa to black cultural tradition as if black cultural tradition can be made into a monolith.

      “This doesn’t belong to us and is not for us to change. Period.”

      This is bizarre. First you don’t contextualise your pronoun. Who is “us”? Non-Africans? Or whites? Or men? Or performance artists whose songs make the top 10 in industrialised nations? Secondly, the fact that you acknowledge that the dance style is a hybrid means it is a given that change has happened. California rolls and chicken tikka masala presumably also do not belong to “us”, using your logic. Thirdly, this article is not arbitrating for further alterations to twerking, so warning against further change in the comments section is redundant to say the least.

      Peddling cultural relativity, which is what you are doing, erases grassroots movements against harmful traditions, is racist because it equates one tradition to the identity of an entire nation (or more spectacularly in your case, to one entire race), and is anti-human rights legilsation in principle because it reinforces inequality based on caste, nation and race.

    • lo

      So first, saying that “twerking” is a black cultural tradition (wtf) is an ignorant statement. And racist. Black people have different cultures, they don’t have just “one”. You just sound like these people who think that Africa during the 1400s=one coutry with the same culture forever.
      Because of people like you the capitalist industry, and the public of the entertainment industry think that all black twerk. Thanks for perpetuating racist stereotypes.

      “Calling this ‘degrading’ because you don’t get it is racist and ignorant.”

      Twerking was just a dance, but now the whole industry/patriarchal culture has sexualised it . So now it’s not just a dance anymore, it’s women being objectified. And who is objectified, is dehumanized.
      If it didn’t have any sexual meaning for the public of the entertainment (who are often teenagers), then the industry wouldn’t force EVERY -and only- females to perform “twerk” half naked or during sexual songs(because I didn’t see any men twerking naked. Surprising? ? Not). Also If it was just a dance men wouldn’t be turned on at all or call the thing “hot”.
      The sexual innuendo is quite clear, what we’re seeing today as “twerking”, presented by patriarchy, has nothing to do with what it meant before.
      The common points between how twerking is presented today and the porn industry are also obvious. Most of music videos are now just soft-porn.

      Even the asian entertainment industry (KPop) forces asian women to follow the “trend”.

      Thinking that our society doesn’t sexualise every part of women (especially the buttocks), every movement we do, is kinda naive.

  • Helena

    “Conservative men: Women’s bodies are private property.

    Liberal men: Women’s bodies are public property.”

    [I don’t have the source for this quote.]

  • OldPolarBear

    I’m thinking Andrea Dworkin, but I don’t remember which book, and maybe she was quoting somebody.