Facials, feminism, and performance: On f**king men in a patriarchy

As feminists, sleeping with men is always going to be a little fraught.

Not getting to the actual act, per se — jumping into bed with people we feel like jumping into bed with can be pretty straightforward – rather the politics surrounding feminists having sex with men within the context of a patriarchy as well as, of course, the maintenance of a sexual relationship with a man in the long-term.

Applying the phrase, “the personal is political,” seems particularly difficult when we are talking about an act that can be very private and very personal. Certainly sex is one of those things that can make us feel extremely vulnerable. Including politics or even acknowledging that, in one way or another, there is a larger context to our behaviour when it comes to sex, leaves something to be desired. Particularly for women, who work so hard to shake the inner and outer critic that says: “you’re not good enough,” “you’re not hot enough,” “you’re too slutty,” “you’re not slutty enough” — I get why we might want to avoid opening ourselves up to (further) public critique in the form of feminism. “Get the fuck out of my bedroom” does strike me as a remarkably reasoned response.

That said, I’m not one to take individual acts as simply individual acts.

Recently, Emily McCombs posted a piece at xoJane about her love of facials (no, not the kind you get at the spa). She wrote:

“No, I don’t feel degraded by it, nor do I think my male partners’ enjoyment of said act means they hate women. I mean, if they did, there are faster ways to oppress us than one shot in the face at a time.”

She adds, “My orgasms are a politics-free zone.”

So ok. I also want politics to stay the hell out of my orgasms. BUT OH THEY JUST WON’T. I can’t help but acknowledge that sometimes the things we do or want or say in the bedroom are not entirely free of “politics.” Being aware that the larger context that, for example, might create a desire for a man to cum on our faces might possibly include, well, porn for one, doesn’t make you a bad person for enjoying that act. I think that it’s possible for an act to be symbolically degrading without an individual necessarily feeling degraded by that act in all cirucumstances. Feeling degraded isn’t necessarily necessary in order to acknowledge that often our desires are shaped by a larger culture that has worked very hard, for a very long time, to sexualize the degradation of women. And that acknowledgment does not mean the same thing as saying: “you are bad and wrong and unfeminist and ruining feminism for everyone because of the things that turn you on in bed.” Nope. Not the same.

To me, I just can’t see the point of being a feminist if I’m not going to ask “why?” about most everything. I ask why I keep shaving my legs, why I’m unable to eat food for the entire day before a first date (I get nervous, you guys!), why I think buying shoes will make my life better, and I ask why I feel or think or do the things I do in bed with a man. Sometimes I even think about why I go to bed with men in the first place. Is this biological or social? Would I be a lesbian if I hadn’t been conditioned towards heterosexuality? Some of these questions I have answers to, others I’m not quite sure about. But I know this: much of my sexual history and behaviour has been determined by factors including my growing up a girl in a man’s world.

My thoughts, desires, insecurities, and behaviours are not suddenly cordoned off from a larger culture once I close the bedroom door. I also don’t believe I’m being degraded every time I have sex with a man, though many accuse feminists of holding this belief. I actually don’t know a single feminist, in person, who believes that.

Like McCombs, I don’t see semen as “dirty or offensive” — though I’m not convinced that that’s what Dworkin meant when she said:

“The ejaculation on her is a way of saying (through showing) that she is contaminated with his dirt; that she is dirty.”

First off, I think there is a difference between the images we see in pornography, which is what Dworkin is referencing in this quote from her 1993 speech Pornography Happens to Women, and what we do as individuals in the bedroom (though these two may well be connected). When we see a man ejaculating onto a woman’s face in pornography, it is reasonable to view that act as representative of women’s subordination. Mainstream pornography is generally, as Dworkin describes, about things happening to women’s bodies. Things are done to their bodies. Men are the actors, and male fantasies are projected onto the bodies of women.

In film theory everything has meaning. Everything is symbolic. Similarly, in pornography, as Dworkin points out “everything means something.” Gender means something, bodies mean something, body parts mean something, the acts done to women mean something. Getting a facial in your bedroom doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as a woman getting a facial in a porn movie does and, in fact, the relevance of whether or not the individual actress in the porn appears to be ‘enjoying’ the cum shot to her face is less important than the larger meaning of the image on screen. I am not at all surprised that “the majority of porn shows women basking in and positively loving receiving a facial” or that “a lot more straight porn features women happily accepting facials than reacting with disgust and evident humiliation” because women in porn are presenting a fantasy and that fantasy is that women enjoy being objectified, cum on, gang-raped, called whores and bitches, whatever. Porn is about male fantasy. The fantasy is that women like everything you do to them, as man.

So how does this translate into real life? Women spend a lot of time and energy trying to please men. We learn early on that we are being looked at – that we are to be looked at. That we are performers. It took years before I actually started enjoying sex. YEARS. I think what I enjoyed most about sex, when I was younger, was the feeling of being desired. The actual sex part was super boring for the first while.

We learn, as girls and women, that the performance is more important than the actual feeling. Do you know how many women can’t actually relax during sex because they are so self-conscious about whether or not their stomachs look flabby? A lot. Read Cosmo (which actually suggests facing away from your partner during sex if you feel self-conscious about your body!?). HOW THE HELL ARE WOMEN SUPPOSED TO HAVE ORGASMS WHEN THEY ARE WORRYING ABOUT WHAT THEIR STOMACHS LOOK LIKE? And in other news, are men everywhere having trouble relaxing and cumming while they are in bed with women because they’re concerned their pecs aren’t muscly enough? Sigh.

What I’m saying is that, when we feel that sex is a performance it impacts, well, our performance. And the reason we see ourselves as performers in the bedroom, the reason that we’re thinking about our appearances, and the sounds we’re making, and our facial expressions, is in large part because of the porn/pornified images we have seen onscreen.

So same goes for facials. It’s more than likely that women learned this was hot from porn. And that is troubling. Because I think emulating porn doesn’t help us enjoy our bodies or sex, nor does it help us relax and have pleasure in bed. In fact it inhibits it in many ways.

All that said, I actually completely agree with McCombs when she says: “We can recognize our influences while still liking what we like.” We don’t have to have sex in any prescribed way simply because we are feminists. But to say that “sexism doesn’t get to dictate what I can and can’t enjoy” isn’t entirely true. Because in many ways it does and it has. All the fucked up ways I behave in my life were, as far as I can tell and in one way or another, determined by my experience being socialized in a patriarchal society. That doesn’t mean I need to hate myself for it. It doesn’t even mean I need to stop behaving in those ways or thinking those weird, unhealthy things about my face/life/body/boyfriends. But it sure doesn’t hurt to recognize how sexism factors into the equation. In fact, I think that understanding the way that sexism has messed with my head is the only way to overcome it (eventually).

Feminism has made sex better for me. Not worse. Feminism hasn’t limited me, it’s helped me to understand me. It’s helped me understand what I’m comfortable with, who I’m comfortable with, and what I’m comfortable doing. It hasn’t made me ashamed. What made me ashamed was the not knowing. The trying to fit into some pornified version of the me I thought I was supposed to be. Why didn’t I like all of the things I thought I was supposed to like? Without feminism I thought I just wasn’t liberated enough to enjoy degradation. That was a whole bunch of bullshit. I don’t need to dress up in cheesy lingerie and put on a strip show in order to prove how empowered I am because I don’t actually need to prove anything to anyone. Thanks feminism!

This isn’t to say that I’m constantly having perfect, empowered, multiple-orgasm, insecurity-free sex either. It doesn’t mean that I don’t catch myself performing at times. The sexism is still there folks! Inside the bedroom. Inside my head. But I’m done trying to enjoy or pretending to enjoy things that feel boring/painful/degrading because I feel like that’s what sexy girls do.

So I don’t particularly want politics in my bedroom either, but they’re there. Whether we like it or not. As long as we’re feminists and we’re living in a patriarchy, it’s very likely that we’re going to desire or enjoy things in the bedroom that might make us uncomfortable or confused or uncertain. We might wonder why sometimes we feel as though we are performing, why we asked to be spanked, or why we love getting facials. I’m never going to tell anyone to stop liking those things but I’m also not going to pretend as though that facial isn’t symbolic. You aren’t fucking in a bubble and yet you also can have your desire. Have it without shame. No one’s here to police the sex you are having but as we move forward in this world and on our paths as feminists, so long as we are sleeping with men, politics will be in the bedroom, in one way or another.

But yes, you can keep your orgasms.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.