sexy but not sexual: untangling the web of liberation and oppression in the changes to porn laws

Philippa Snow investigates the new changes to porn laws, that equate female pleasure with BDSM, and the obstacles and moral quandries of the female body.

by Philippa Snow
|
12 December 2014, 12:23am

"Spanking, caning, aggressive whipping, penetration by any object 'associated with violence,' physical or verbal abuse (regardless of if consensual), urolagnia (known as 'water sports'), role-playing as non-adults, physical restraint, humiliation, female ejaculation, strangulation, facesitting [and] fisting." — aside from being perhaps the most adventurous and chequered list I have ever copied into a desktop document for a legitimate, writerly purpose (as opposed to mere kicks), these are also the 13 sex acts recently outlawed by a new piece of U.K. legislation: more specifically, while they are not illegal for viewing in the United Kingdom, they are banned from all pornographic productions filmed here, for streaming or sale.

This gets the point across rather neatly: male pleasure good, female pleasure bad. The rules, a dominatrix quite correctly told Vice magazine, are absurd and surreal.

That most of the practices listed are targeting the BDSM community feels oddly un-British, to begin with: there is a certain degree of pride in the fact that consensual sadomasochism — typically in the form of whipping or spanking, though sometimes also as an odd and outdated synonym for sodomy — has been referred to as "the English vice" since the 19th century (sucks to John Major's whey-faced assmar, with his "country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers"). Most debate has tended to centre on the anti-woman nature of the bans: on the eradication of pleasure and-power-centric acts like female ejaculation and "face-sitting," a move which is so nakedly and so miserably part of a larger, systemic framework that it is almost too sad to consider. The de rigeur "money shot" in porn ("to ejaculate [cum] on a woman's body, other than inside a crevice," in the words of the scholarly UrbanDictionary, "usually on the face or in the eye") is so indelible that the phrase has slipped into our everyday language, where its female equivalent, here, is banned. Deep-throat fellatio is A-OK according to the ATVOD, but "facesitting" is potentially lethal, and so outlawed. This gets the point across rather neatly: male pleasure good, female pleasure bad. The rules, a dominatrix quite correctly told Vice magazine, are "absurd and surreal."

The problem here is that the conclusions thrown up by these anti-female bans are neither new nor unique to these pornographic examples: they are a typical tragedy, and you can read about them anywhere, at any time, provided you have access to the internet, and the will to Google them. Begin to consider the politicised female body and life becomes an endless series of obstacles; thought-puzzles; moral quandries with no apparent 'right' or 'wrong' answer. "How do we maintain our sexual agency and express our sexual freedoms while preventing ourselves from being objectified by the world at large?" "How do we separate misogyny and patriarchal programming from consensual sexual fetishes which are related to domination, or to submission?" It's Schroedinger's Pussy: our liberation and our oppression are sometimes sitting, unknowably, in the same box at the very same time. And yet it's impossible not to ask our questions, and so, even though we are tired, we have to continue with our endless questioning. Ignorance is the opposite of bliss, but so is our newfound knowledge, which pains us. We have to sit through the lessons; the lectures; the new-media education that tries to prepare us for the problems of simply Being While Female, as best as it can. And we hold our eyes open with pink-tipped matchsticks to stave off sleep.

As objects that are inert, our bodies are safe enough for the casual consumption of children: safe enough to make the third page of a national paper, or the front page of a magazine, or an advert for deodorant aimed at preteen loners. If the female body is a weapon, I suppose, then we are to assume that it is better disarmed for display, or active only for use in the hands of a man — A Girl, after all, Is A Gun. The world in which a sexed-up model is pictured crying on the cover of a softcore lads mag (NUTS: THE FINAL ISSUE; her bra is funeral black, as a mark of respect) is not some future dystopia in a satiric story, but the world of the Now. Myleen Klass may take a shower on primetime television in a white bikini, but only for the benefit of the viewer's onanistic observation. The act is still passive, if knowing.

("Passive, if knowing" is supposed to be our programmed stock-in-trade, these days. It is a thing we are trained in to make ourselves useful to those who are looking.)

While "sexy, but not sexual" may never be used to describe pornography, in this instance we can think of law-sanctioned porn as something closer to "sexy, but not explicitly sexual[ly gratifying

I've cited, maybe every time I've written about the topic of women and their sexual lives, a Paris Hilton quotation in which she describes her appeal as the fact that she's "sexy, not sexual": that this wisdom was parsed by Paris continues to surprise, but then this surprise, in itself seems resolutely antifeminist, as the media writes off the heiress as an airhead. These ideological landmines are far more explosive, in my opinion, than the act of sitting — consensually — on somebody's face in a movie, and carry a greater danger of suffocation beneath their weight.

And Paris is right, of course. She has cracked the code, but knowing the problem does not give us the key to its undoing: while "sexy, but not sexual" may never be used to describe pornography, in this instance we can think of law-sanctioned porn as something closer to "sexy, but not [explicitly] sexual[ly gratifying]" for its female participants, and so the rule fits as it always does.

All of this is not to say that the act of writing or reading or thinking about the treatment of the female body is boring, or that it is anything less than vital, or that we should let up from it for even a moment. It is only a guarded admission that the necessity of doing these things in the bloody and sharp-edged world that we occupy daily, as women, is becoming a little more wearisome. You want a "vision of the future," after Orwell? Imagine a manicured hand clenched into an angry, impotent fist — sometimes, I fear, forever. 

@philippasnow

Credits


Text Philippa Snow
Photography Tom Morris

Tagged:
feminism
BDSM
protest
porn laws
philippa snow