The Liberty of Sexual Commodification
June 20, 2014
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It seems that for some so-called feminists, especially the kind of feminism that some libertarians have found convenient to promote, sexualized sadism and masochism is female liberation. We now have a celebrity “Duke porn star” who is using their choice to go into porn to help pay for their attendance at a prestigious private university as a rationale to promote libertarian arguments about the cost of higher education and privatizing schooling (note the convenient plug to left-libertarian Sheldon Richman at the end), while also identifying and being held up by some as a feminist. Some libertarians are making her a heroine and a publicity token. Things get extra odd if one investigates her work to find it to include a few examples of her being verbally humiliated and treated to sadistic sexual behavior, while her humiliator harkens to add the irony and snark of saying “this is feminism 101”.
So let me get this straight. Out of one side of their mouths, many libertarian feminists want to wield rhetoric about patriarchy and misogyny, while out of the other side of their mouths they are ideologically focused on supporting hyper-sexuality even if it involves participation in and propagation of submissive female gender roles and the very culture of sexual violence that one simultaneously frequently hears feminists talk about. Much of hardcore porn is more or less characterized by a fetishization of female submission to male sadism. While it is one thing for libertarians to support the general legal status of porn, as is normal per their view, it’s an awkward and different matter when they take the next step to basically being committed to defending and enabling the culture of porn (at least implicitly) by framing it in terms of the liberty to consent to masochism or merely as a career choice on the market that those nasty state interventions get in the way of.
I think it’s pretty clear that the S&M world has ambiguities about consent that can get it into tricky territory, and that community regularly debates among itself about that, and this is the reason for ideas like safe words. I think it may be the case that in the porn industry the lines of consent can blur as well. But even if we do recognize that,in some sense those who participate in masochistic porn are consenting, it’s consensual nature becomes irrelevant as far as recognizing that it’s a symptom of a cultural problem. It may be a decision made on the market, but it seems misleading if not bizarre to characterize it in terms of female liberation when it essentially propagates sexuality as a power play while reinforcing the idea that women are sexual objects. Does objectification cease to matter when money is involved? I don’t understand how this could be a coherent form of feminism.
For those who are ideologically committed to “sex positivity”, one is necessarily regressive if one criticizes the culture of hyper-sexuality. It’s as for them one has a one-dimensional choice between their views and a socially conservative view – surely you must be a stuffy prude who is trying to stop others from having fun and opposes sex before marriage! But what’s really going on is that some people recognize that the commodification of sexuality is a problem. Perhaps both a culture of sexual repression and a culture of normalized sexual objectification have problems. Maybe there’s a difference between genuinely free sexuality and the adoption of hyper-sexuality as a social norm or of sexuality on the market; the sexual accessorizing of human beings as dispensable tools to use power on, and sexuality as a purchasable fantasy product.
Sexuality as an object of marketing, and as something one approaches as a competitive market for consumer goods, is responsible for superficiality in popular culture and reinforces dubious gender norms. This has probably produced an overall increase in the amount of people who have no idea how to have meaningful relationships, because their idea of relationships comes from media-generated fantasy or they are part of a dating market that thrives on short-term relationships mainly revolved around sexual gratification. This does not mean I think we should normalize the repression of sexuality, but rather that we shouldn’t blindly promote it without considering its power. I observe that the cultural move since the 60’s toward unleashing previously repressed sexuality by going to the oppose extreme, in conjunction with market forces, has created a different problem of its own.