Image: Doll House Pole Fitness

These days, men who frequent strip clubs, follow porn stars on Instagram, and share unsolicited nudes or dick pics are called “fuck boys.” Yet, a woman who does the same is “empowered, liberated, and reclaiming her sexuality.” Women who claim the “feminist” label are able to be critical of men who engage in what some might call “toxic masculinity,” but when women engage in similar practices, critics are said to be attacking women. Why?

When I pointed out that pole dancing is not empowering, after J.Lo’s controversial Super Bowl halftime show performance, I failed to acknowledge one fact: many women want to be sexually objectified, even if it comes at a cost to both themselves and other women. And fulfillment of that desire — however harmful — can be interpreted as an empowered choice.

It is no mere coincidence that, despite having accessed the highest of educational and economic privilege, many women are voluntarily taking pole classes and posting photos of their asses online. We are deeply attached to life under a glass ceiling. We may have equal legal rights, but we still live in a porn culture, and, like victims of trauma bonding, we are clinging to the notion that we can reframe the harm of objectification as “free choice,” and therefore it is no longer harmful. But this puts us in a bind: even if objectification is a free choice, it still hurts women, meaning we are in a prison of our own making.

We are both embarrassed by and enmeshed within the terms of our own sexual subversion. The knee jerk “don’t judge how women choose to be sexual” response tells us all we need to know about female sexuality today: we cannot fathom sexuality existing outside of the extremes of either religious puritanism or sexist voyeurism, and we refuse to think beyond this.

As Paolo Freire explained in his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressed, once freed, often become their own oppressor: “Having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, [the oppressed] are fearful of freedom.” Whether it’s selling nudes, going to strip clubs to see other women clap their ass cheeks, or groping women in a display of faux-lesbianism, women have become the untouchable cheerleaders doing exactly what we would call men douchebags for doing.

We want to pick apart the “toxic masculine” and hold its leaders to account, but, as women, we refuse to do the same. On Twitter, one woman said that while she is ok selling her nudes to men, she wouldn’t be OK with her boyfriend buying other women’s nudes. The double standard is odd. But the only acceptable response to someone like her is, #yougogirl.

While third wave feminists insist we cannot criticize women’s performances of “sexuality,” lest we engage in “slut shaming,” the truth is that women are not shamed for being sexual — rather, they are routinely and widely shamed as prudes for saying “no.”

It is unequivocally clear that commodified versions of sex are not shamed in our society. The opposite is true: the selling of sex and porn is rampant and encouraged. As Meghan Murphy points out, “Prostitution is already destigmatized, it’s not helping.”

I am not speaking from a place of judgement, either, but from experience (and honesty). I will be the first to admit that the reason I have chosen to get blackout drunk, take a million selfies, flash my friends, and make out with a hot woman at the bar is not because I am making an empowered choice to challenge the patriarchy and reclaim queer sexuality, but because I, like every human on earth, am deeply shaped by sexist conditioning. I do not write critically about this to shame women, but to criticize the conditions that shape our choices.

Historically, all women have lacked sexual sovereignty over our bodies. This fact is pretty widely accepted after several waves of feminism and the #MeToo movement. Yet, it is unacceptable to question the ways in which burlesque, pole classes, and nudes — the highbrow, upper-class replications of lower-class women’s sexual subordination — further entrench the problem.

To be clear, I’m not telling women not to do these things — I’m pointing out that reselling the problem at a higher price point is not a solution.

Bizarrely, many of us are terrified of a return to a Victorian-type era, where sex is repressed, but we are not terrified of our present day: where there are more women and children sexually enslaved than ever before and millions of us mindlessly wank over propaganda for that exploitation.

Far from resolving this paradox, feminist approaches have reinforced our entrenchment within it. Arguing we “reclaim it and do it for ourselves” has only led women further down the very same path that men like Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein wanted us on. Rather than presenting new or alternate visions of sexuality, we have the same old “tits out for the boys” norm, but this time apparently we’re doing it for ourselves. Just like regular old objectification, “self-objectification” still leads to increased risk of depression, body image insecurities, lower self-esteem, and poorer treatment from both men and women alike. None of these harms are mitigated because some women are objectifying themselves as a choice.

Mischaracterizing women who speak on this issue as prudish and pearl-clutching is only doubling down on the misogyny that fuels sexual exploitation. It is necessary that we criticize exploitation and sexual objectification in order to advance authentic sexuality — look to Audre Lorde, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Adrienne Rich, who have all masterfully articulated the differences between the pornographic and the erotic.

There is a time for calling out the men who demonstrate “toxic masculinity” — the Harvey Weinsteins of the world who have made a fortune while exploiting and sexually objectifying women and girls. But there is also a time for calling out the leaders of the “toxic feminine” — those women who perpetuate harmful imagery and claim it is empowering: the Emily Ratajkowskis, the J.Los, and, frankly, the entirety of third wave feminism. I am not shaming women who pole dance, post nudes, or strip — I want to look truthfully at how these choices are limited and shaped, and talk about why women do feel ashamed when they participate in their own oppression.

Laura McNally is a registered psychologist, author, PhD, and professional shit-stirrer. Her commentary has been featured in The ABC, The Guardian, The Australian, The Ethics Centre, and more. You can find her at The Same Drugs with Meghan Murphy on Patreon and YouTube.

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