The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Come again?

I am a big believer in reform. I think given the right impetus, opportunity, and support, people can change. They can get better, improve, and come to regret things they’ve done. Naive and idealistic, maybe, but sometimes I am, darlings. I also think you can really dislike a person, but agree with something they say.

Which is why I was willing to give Hugo Schwyzer the benefit of the doubt when he wrote this piece. Because this is all very true.

It’s a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn’t the actual intent of the men doing it — it forces women to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger.   It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those “angry feminists” who (literally) scares men off and drives them away….

This doesn’t mean that a “good man” is always in the wrong when he’s arguing with a woman.  It does mean that when men and women argue about gender justice, women are more likely to have insights that men have missed.  Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.  When a man and a woman are arguing about feminism – and the women involved happen to be feminists and the man happens to be an affluent white dude – the chances that he’s the one from whom the truth is more obscured is very high indeed.   That’s as true for me as it is for Tom Matlack.

So, when the furor at Feministe (one of my favourite feminist places) happened, I was a little nonplussed. Here was this guy, who seemed to get it. Sure, problematic relationships with his students – but who hasn’t done things they regret? We grow up, we move on. Oh. He tried to kill himself and his girlfriend? Huh. Well…he was an addict, we all do things…and…. I am increasingly on thin ice here. I can’t justify that, especially in the terms he describes it – he was trying to take care of her, she was broken, only he was strong enough to do what needed to be done. And you know what? Part of reform is admitting what you’ve done, and paying the consequences. He freely admits he hasn’t done that.

Oh. And then Clarisse shut down the comments? Well, while calling someone a sociopath – if you’re not a psychiatrist, and don’t actually know him – is dangerous, but yeah, that seems extreme.

But Feministe apologised, and all was well. Sort of. However, enter Jezebel, who will do whatever they can to increase pageviews, even if it’s posting a column basically suggesting we women are too wrapped up in the idea of consent.  At Jezebel, Mr Schwyzer has suggested this:

For a young man raised with the sense that his body – and especially his penis – is “disgusting”, a woman’s willingness to accept a facial is an intensely powerful source of affirmation. In my conversations with Glickman and Andelloux, I shared this anecdote. Both agreed that rather than seeing the facial as rooted in the impulse to denigrate, it might indeed be better to view it as longing for approval. Andelloux pointed out that in her experience, many women (often with good reason) have a difficult time believing that degradation isn’t at the root of straight men’s fascination with facials. In any case, humiliation and affirmation aren’t incompatible reactions to the same act; a feeling of indignity when your partner ejaculates on your face isn’t contingent on his intending to demean you.

And, yeah, OK, this is where I draw the line. Flavia has said it all better than me, but Hugo? remember back up there when you said that men should sometimes shut up and listen? It’s time for you to Shut Up. We’re not going to give you cookies for being an ally, not especially when you argue bullshit like this.

I should preface the rest of this paragraph with the disclaimer that some women don’t mind, or even enjoy, facials. For me, it’s entirely contextual on the person I am with, and the situation I am in. But the way they are usually (insert standard disclaimer here) portrayed in porn is inherently degrading. But don’t worry about that! According to the estimable Mr Schwyzer, that doesn’t matter! We women should suffer through a humiliating act because it might make a dude feel better about his cock? Look, I’m all for consenting adults being allowed to do whatever they want, but that? Is bullshit. And in fact, consent is barely mentioned in the piece. It’s much more about we women should “let” men do it, to save their precious egos. There’s lip service paid to the idea that “No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation.” Except that the entire rest of the piece makes that statement a lie.

And of course, “At the same time (as perhaps with anal sex), many people struggle to believe that receiving a facial is something a woman could enjoy.” This is something anyone involved with BDSM is familiar with – you can’t consent to being submissive, that’s unfeminist, and also, you like being hurt? What? Weird. To which, you know, shut up, I can’t be bothered with that conversation today.

But, seriously, feminist sites need to stop giving this guy airtime. He’s not a feminist. He wants to believe he is, maybe, as redemption, or just cos it’s a really good way to get chicks. Let him write what he writes at his own place, and people who care can have that conversation there. I’m not someone who believes men can’t be feminists – the kyriarchy hurts everyone, and men should  be a part of the conversation. But when a man consistently fails to take responsibility for his actions and his words, and actively promotes disrespecting women – then, yeah, nah, it’s time to STFU.

[Update: Garland Grey also has a great piece, with my favourite sentence this week: "But still, the memory of his sexism is reason enough for you to reevaluate your flimsy personal objections to this sex act, because if there is anything I know about Feminism, it’s that not nearly enough people are getting jizzed on and this is a crisis."]

17 responses to “Come again?

  1. Deborah January 14, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Following the furore at Feministe, I went and read some of Hugo Schwyzer’s material and ‘though some pieces are insightful and helpful, a lot of it was very much Clever Kind Man Just Trying To Help The Ladiez With Their Feeble Branes.

    There’s a great post up on the F-word this morning, about the same issue, and making one of the same points that you make, that we need to keep our noses out of people’s bedrooms. If a woman enjoys facials and consents, then it’s absolutely none of our business. Or even, if a person consents to some activity because her or his partner wants to do it, and she’s okay with that, then that’s entirely her business too. The big thing is the quality of consent, including the ability to withdraw consent at any time. The post is: Your nose has no place in my bedroom (unless it’s invited).

    Great post, Tallulah.

  2. Psycho Milt January 14, 2012 at 9:08 am

    “Problematic relationships with his students” is a dead giveaway. There’s a whole subspecies of lefty academic types for whom being Down with the Ladies seems mainly to translate into opportunities to shag students. “Feminist” really isn’t the right term for them.

    • tallulahspankhead January 14, 2012 at 9:18 am

      I don’t have a particular problem with it – although obviously a person in a position of power exploiting young women is an issue, that’s not always what those relationships are – consenting adults and all that. And I’ve been there.

      But, yeah, in the context of all of the other stuff, and the incredibly dismissive and condescending way he seems to talk about women, it all starts to add up, against him.

  3. Max Rose January 15, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I won’t say anything about Schwyzer, having only read a couple of his pieces, but I will wade into the matter in hand. So to speak.

    One of the things that I find offputting about mainstream straight porn is the fact that no matter what else happens in the rest of the clip, it will almost always end in a facial. It’s not something that’s ever particularly appealed to me, and while I could understand some people being into it, its sheer ubiquity in porn is puzzling unless one posits a meaning beyond meeting the pre-existing fantasies of the watcher.

    So: “But the way they are usually (insert standard disclaimer here) portrayed in porn is inherently degrading.” That’s certainly the case some of the time, but in my experience it’s more common for the woman to be shown as an eager recipient. It’s clear that most porn performers would rather not receive facials, and requiring a performer to put up again and again with an act that she finds disgusting would indeed be degrading for her personally. But they don’t seem to be usually portrayed as inherently degrading: on the contrary, the recipient more commonly acts ridiculously ecstatic at the prospect, rather than being humiliated. Perhaps we’re watching different subsets of porn?

    • tallulahspankhead January 15, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Probably, given that my standard disclaimer includes that I don’t watch a lot of porn.

      But I think the fact that actresses are shown enjoying it is telling. I know few women who enjoy it, beyond the bounds of certain relationships. The very ubiquity of an act many women hugely dislike is…problematic.

      Which…obviously, if people enjoy it, great, and we should all shut the hell up. But suggesting anyone should put up with an act they find degrading, on the basis that it’s ‘helpful’, or whatever he is arguing, is ridiculous.

      • Max Rose January 15, 2012 at 9:29 pm

        “But I think the fact that actresses are shown enjoying it is telling. I know few women who enjoy it, beyond the bounds of certain relationships. The very ubiquity of an act many women hugely dislike is…problematic.”

        I think that’s the nub of it. Rather than it being depicted as an act of degradation, the problem arises from its presentation as something that women should enjoy, contrary to the realities of sexual interests and tastes. That could then lead to women feeling pressured to perform an act that they find degrading, and to men expecting it as a “normal” (warning! loaded word alert!) part of sex, and then either thinking their partners are prudish for refusing or thinking they love doing something that they secretly hate.

        There might be something in what Schwyzer says about affirmation and acceptance, though I think he’s gone off on a strange tangent. There are a lot of things about men’s and women’s bodies that we have been taught to find disgusting, and by relishing one’s partner’s body and its processes, we should be able to help one another feel more comfortable and accepted. I’ve had one or two encounters with women who were initially uncomfortable with receiving oral sex, on the grounds that men don’t really enjoy doing it: I think I helped dispel their fears about that, but it shows that some women still have that deeply ingrained body discomfort. On the other hand, I’ve very occasionally been with a woman who half-jokingly said something like “Yuck! Men are messy.” I wasn’t too perturbed by it, but I can imagine someone with a more fragile body image or who is less comfortable with himself as a sexual being feeling quite shamed by that.

        But … I think that facials may be in a different category. If we’re to give Schwyzer his due about “men’s desire for that same experience of being validated as desirable, as good, as ‘not dirty’,” then a more relevant act might be fellatio with swallowing (which, unlike facials, is something that I’ve known women to actively seek). A facial is not a direct form of sexual stimulation but the aftermath thereof, a politically loaded ritual between giver and receiver. That’s what might make potentially it “inherently degrading”, rather than the assumption in some of the comments on those sites that semen is indeed inherently disgusting, which almost proves Schwyzer’s point.

    • Emma January 15, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Ms. Naughty’s Boring Blowjobs and Feminist Facials, from 2007, is still the best thing I’ve ever read on this issue.

      Facial cumshots suck because:
      1. We don’t get to see the guy’s face when he comes, which is always a sexy thing to see.
      2. They’re often carefully staged, are disconnected from the sex and look fake.
      3. They can be very easily interpreted as a degrading thing. Wait, my fellow rabid feminists! That’s not to say they always are, but within the context of a very misogynist porn industry where facials are the norm, and where it’s often assumed the viewer is a male who likes to see women in their place, the facial can be a sexist thing.
      4. It’s always assumed that a facial will occur at the end of sex, there’s no discussion of it and no indication that either party wanted it to be that way. It just happens as though that’s the way everybody does it.

      • Max Rose January 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm

        Thanks, that’s an excellent article. It captures some of the things I was trying to say, but much better. In video porn, I always tend to find the initial seduction, undressing and foreplay the most arousing, as well as the female orgasms (as long as they look real and we can really see her reactions), while the endless blowjobs and facials are just predictable and dull. I guess that’s part of why these days I’m more interested in the greater variety of porn and erotica (hate the smugness of the word, but it’s more appropriate in some cases) that one can find on Tumblr than the main video sites.

      • tallulahspankhead January 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm

        It’s always assumed that a facial will occur at the end of sex, there’s no discussion of it and no indication that either party wanted it to be that way. It just happens as though that’s the way everybody does it.

        Yeah, I think therein lies the problem. A facial is one of those things you really need enthusiastic for. and nowhere in Schwyzer’s column is that addressed. Just ‘ladies, you should do this!’

        OK. I’ve had one partner who loved to give them, and…in the dynamic of our relationship, that was fine. There was discussion, and all that. I’ve also had someone do it to me without us talking about it, and I was furious. And he did it purely to establish a dominance over me that I didn’t want. It is one of those things that you kind of can’t strip from the social context.

        • Max Rose January 15, 2012 at 10:47 pm

          “A facial is one of those things you really need enthusiastic for. and nowhere in Schwyzer’s column is that addressed. Just ‘ladies, you should do this!’”

          I went back and re-read his article, after having mostly read the responses for a while, and he seems like he’s trying to have it every way. While he does say “No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation,” he spends more time on an apologia for the act, and when combined with Jezebel’s framing of the post (“He needs your love”), it’s easy to read it as you say.

          Overall, though, I’m not sure that he’s really saying “should.” Maybe I’m being too charitable about his oddly-written post, but if I were to summarise his message I’d think it was more like “Ladies, if he wants to do this, you shouldn’t automatically think that he wants to denigrate you, and if you think you can handle it, it might be a nice thing to do for him.”

          I know that there are a few sex acts that I used to be squeamish about, but that I’ve learned to enjoy or at least be comfortable with if it pleases the woman I’m with, so perhaps it’s not too awful to try to give some explanation of why some men might want it. Personally, though, I think there are many other ways to provide “an intensely powerful source of affirmation” and show that “a woman [isn't] threatened by a man’s semen” that don’t involve a strangely stilted and tediously ubiquitous porn ritual.

          • Emma January 16, 2012 at 11:11 am

            Overall, though, I’m not sure that he’s really saying “should.” Maybe I’m being too charitable about his oddly-written post, but if I were to summarise his message I’d think it was more like “Ladies, if he wants to do this, you shouldn’t automatically think that he wants to denigrate you, and if you think you can handle it, it might be a nice thing to do for him.”

            This was initially how I read it too, albeit executed very poorly. Also, that “he does this because he wants to degrade you” is a motive imputed to men by (Dines-ish) women without consulting men, and perhaps if you want to know why men do something, you should ask men. (Also, “porn portrays facials as degrading” is straight out of Dines’s playbook, and pretty much a sign the person saying it doesn’t watch any porn.) But then, I’m constantly arguing that sex-positivity hasn’t done enough to reclaim and reframe straight male sexuality yet, so that would be the lens I see it through. I am concerned that the reaction to Hugo’s column will make men less comfortable talking about their own views and experience of het sex.

            Also, “you can’t show women liking this because women don’t like this” sounds… awfully familiar.

          • tallulahspankhead January 16, 2012 at 11:58 am

            That was kind of the point I was trying to make – the post is not horribly offensive, by itself. While I have problems with it, if it didn’t come on the heels of so many other things, it’d be fine, and I’d never have written a post.

            But given how dismissively he seems to treat the feelings and rights o some women, it seems a strange subject.

          • Emma January 16, 2012 at 12:02 pm

            Yeah, I feel like I put this really badly, possibly because of how conflicted I am. Basically
            – there was a good point in there, however
            – made so badly it’s done far more harm than good.

          • tallulahspankhead January 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

            Yeah. And I do think some people (the feminists against Hugo Schwyzer) are going a little overboard. It would be nice if he took the opportunity to listen, but I don’t think he needs to disappear from the discourse entirely.

  4. Max Rose January 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Having read a bit more of Schwyzer’s work, I have to conclude that he’s a very odd person to have ended up as a sort of mainstream male feminist spokesman. When he says in the Clarrise Thorn interview that “much of my sexual behavior when I was younger was tinged with a grim almost dutiful compulsivity,” or that he needed to undergo a period of celibacy that involved “not only no sexual activity, but also no dating, flirting, masturbating” in order to feel healthy, I wonder how he’s ever going to become the most useful voice for “what men want,” which is what he is doing in his post.

    None of that should invalidate his experience or his point of view, but most people aren’t god-bothering formerly suicidal/homicidal alcoholic sex addicts. Someone for whom sexuality is so tied up in compulsive and destructive behaviour, in the extremes of addiction, abstinence and theological narratives of redemption, is unlikely to be the best sex-positive guide to help men understand feminism. He has had problems that are real problems for a certain number of people, but aren’t necessarily a helpful frame from which to understand most people’s sexuality. By coming from an extreme history, he runs the risk of doing what I think Robyn Salisbury does to often: pathologising anything that isn’t lifelong vanilla monogamy.

  5. tallulahspankhead January 18, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Jill has weighed in with a thoughtful piece at Feministe, basically saying everything I think. I love when she does that.

    The interests of women — and particularly of abuse survivors — take precedence here. And a former abuser who has truly changed his ways will, I believe, understand why that line is drawn. End of story.

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