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September 29, 2005

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NYMOM

" They also have to be willing to consider not just the impact on the individual models/performers, but on the broader culture. The fact that doing a shoot for Suicide Girls makes you feel empowered doesn't mean that the audience masturbating to your pictures is going to recognize you as any more of a human being than if you had done a shoot for Hustler!"

NYMOM said: Exactly...as you said they have an obligation to think of the implications on the broader culture of what they do...

It's surprising how few people do this...

For instance, just this week I saw ads on campus of professional couples offering $50,000 to young girls to donate eggs for them to have children.

It seems wrong someone to be tempting college girls (in the prime of their own lives) to risk damaging their own chances down the road of having children so that someone who can afford $50,000 can do so...

Why I cannnot put into words right this minute; I have to think a little bit about why; but instinctively it feels wrong to me...

Like maybe it's one of those broader cultural issues you mentioned that people need to think about before they act...

Anonymous

I think one of the problems with Suicide Girls is that its popularity (attributable as much to finding a niche amongst the body-modification enthusiasts as to its "model-friendly" image) has made it the de facto representative of "alternative porn," when in fact Mr. Suhl's actions show that it's pretty much more of the same.

Many "Suicide Girls" were tattooed and pierced, relatively few had bodies that matched the surgically-enhanced proportions of women in mainstream porn.

Now this just isn't true, and is in fact one of the more common criticisms of the site - take away the tattoos and the piercings and the dyed hair, and what you're left with are women who look exactly the same as the models found everywhere else. The vast majority of women seen on the site are thin, young and conventionally attractive.

On the other hand, one of the things that I find even more objectionable about sites like the Suicide Girls is that they've dressed up porn in the language of rebellion and female empowerment.

I'm not as anti-porn, but I find it troubling that such a popular site "dresses up" its product in this way, which casts doubt on any erotica that claims to be truly empowering.

So what would my criteria for a truly empowering form of (visual) erotica be? I'd say it needs to meet (at least) the following criteria:

1) The people involved retain control over their images and the context in which the images are displayed; and

2) The dissemination of the material is free from economic or other coercion. (Ideally, it would not be a commercial transaction at all.)

Basically, the sort of difference I'm thinking of is something akin to the difference between commercial software and open source, or the difference between a magazine and a blog. And if there actually is alternative erotica out there that meets these standards, it's not going to be found on sites like Suicide Girls.

Hugo

Anonymous, I stand corrected about SG. Because I am unwilling to spend much time on a site like SG, I have to go on what others tell me.

If I were to accept criteria for "empowering erotica", yours would be a good starting point.

Lauren

Anonymous' criteria is an excellent starting point. One of my concerns about the SG case is that the women who hve left have now been "archived" with no access to the site even though Suhl and co. still make money off of their representations.

Hugo

It would be interesting to see if the model release that SG asks its gals to sign differs in any notable way from the standard such releases used in the porn industry. I very much doubt it.

aldahlia

"The fact that doing a shoot for Suicide Girls makes you feel empowered doesn't mean that the audience masturbating to your pictures is going to recognize you as any more of a human being than if you had done a shoot for Hustler!"

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

I'm not pro-porn myself. And, SG has irritated me since I found out about it several years back.

NYMOM

"The dissemination of the material is free from economic or other coercion. (Ideally, it would not be a commercial transaction at all.)

Basically, the sort of difference I'm thinking of is something akin to the difference between commercial software and open source, or the difference between a magazine and a blog."

NYMOM said:

The only problem with that is posing for pictures requires no skills level but a level of beauty that could be comparable between Suicide Girls and Playboy. The only difference between them would be but one gets paid; the other doesn't...

But with magazines versus blogs there is a level of writing skills involved (not much some would say however) between magazine writers and blogs. So paying one and not the other makes some sense.

Whereas if Suicide girls has the same level of beauty as Playboy, why shouldn't they be paid for their pictures...

Because somehow you think NOT paying these women is empowering them????

I don't know bit everytime feminists come up with one of these ideas; somehow women wind up being screwed...

I think that's another reason why feminism is so mistrusted...

cmc

"The fact that doing a shoot for Suicide Girls makes you feel empowered doesn't mean that the audience masturbating to your pictures is going to recognize you as any more of a human being than if you had done a shoot for Hustler! Authentic feminism asks us to consider how others might interpret our actions."

I have to say that I find this statement oddly troublesome. It reminds me of a Focus on the Family broadcast in which a pastor was exhorting young women that if they have sex before marriage they wouldn't be respected by young men. My visceral response was, "Why would the hell would a young feminist care about the respect of young men who reduce her to her virginity or lack thereof?" As a feminist, why would I want to be ruled by the standards of people with the very patriarchal mores I want to challenge?

Hugo

CMC:

Because we are, at least to some extent, responsible for how our choices are perceived. How we eat, dress, carry ourselves, make love, pose for pictures -- all of these things have repercussions. We can't simply walk away from our responsibility to think through how our behavior might be construed.

This is the point I made in my "Sisterhood is Easier in Winter" post (see sidebar under popular posts.) It's easy to say "I'll do what I want, and if you don't like it, screw you" -- but feminism has long emphasized women's responsibility not to men, but to the sisterhood. Allowing your body to be fetishized by men is unlikely to help the sisterhood much, and arguably does much damage.

sophonisba

Allowing your body to be fetishized by men is unlikely to help the sisterhood much, and arguably does much damage.

For a pro-feminist man, you do seem awfully fond of trying to pit women against one another in this particular arena. How many non-porn-star women have to say, No, sexism is not the responsibility of prostitutes and porn stars to correct before our opinions register? We're not saying "I'll do what I want," as you'd have it - we're saying, "You - you, porn model, you, women who are not me - you are entitled to do what you want." The fact that we try to get better working conditions, more autonomy and safety for porn workers, less acceptance of misogynist porn, and that some of us choose to show no respect to men who enjoy porn for the real or imagined degradation of women therein? Does not mean that we want to treat women in the industry like wayward children who reflect badly on the family name and have a responsibility to maintain our reputation. That is not ok.

If a man chooses to believe that because he can buy sex with one woman, all women therefore have a little whore in them, we don't get to blame her for his mental problems and treatment of all other women. It's wrong and dishonest and most members of "the sisterhood" are fully aware of that. Criticize women for what they do, not for what they "allow" men to do or think.

cmc

Yes! I have been struggling to draft my next comment, but Sophinisba has hit the nail on the head. No woman, porn star or otherwise, should have to live her life worried about representing her gender to the world. Because I would like to see more women CEOs, I admit to cringing inwardly when women give up the fast track to become stay-at-home-moms. BUT I AM WRONG TO DO SO, just as it would be wrong for my employer to assume that I will eventually become a full-time parent just because I am a woman. We are individuals and should make our life choices as individuals. I would never presume to tell a woman that she would be doing a disservice to the sisterhood if she gives up her career, nor would I presume to tell a woman that she is doing a disservice to the sisterhood by posing on a porn site. (I also don't view being sexually fetishized, or being a stay-at-home-mom as inherently degrading. although both can be.)

sophonisba

Thanks, cmc. I also think the second paragraph of your previous comment was very astute. Worrying not about what you're doing but about what men are thinking about it is just the same old privileging of the male gaze and is, in fact, the opposite of concern for other women.

To elaborate: Feminist arguments for porn are often countered by the assertion that while what we say is all true, it's not the reason men like it - that even if it feels empowering to women, men still don't respect it, and think ugly and disempowering thoughts when alone with their images. This is supposed to be a telling blow to the defense of porn. And what is it but the argument that what men think is more important than what women think? That male masturbation has more mystic power than female speech? Porn is dumb, but that's dumber.

You are quite right, Hugo, that we're responsible for what we say and how we act. And if our words imply to others that men are not capable of treating women like individual humans unless every woman is a good girl, we are once again shoving the burden of male actions onto women's collective shoulders. That kind of insidious thought does a lot more damage to feminism than posing for a pinup does.

ThoughtFood

I think it's not as simple as just allowing women to freely choose their roles without accepting the larger impact their choices have on others. For too long, we have over-sexualized ourselves. How often do mean apply false fingernails, wear spike heels that destroy their feet, and artificially enhance their bodies with painful and expensive plastic surgery? Yes, beauty CAN feel empowering, feeling beautiful and attractive is a kind of "high" sometimes. But, it continues to also feed the cycle that women are most valued based on appearances and that WE are even willing to objectify OURSELVES. If we truly care about changing things, we must address the values we all hold--and base meaning on something other than physical attributes. We have to lead by example and stop the cycle.

sophonisba

If you want to tell a woman that spike heels damage her feet, that false fingernails make it impossible to work with her hands, and that plastic surgery looks grotesque and risks her health to no purpose, go ahead. I say things like that all the time, because they're true. If we can do it without patronizing, so much the better. Many women have stopped doing all those things (or never started) because of feminist analyses. Go us.

But if you want to tell a woman that dressing like a sex object hurts all of us because men can't tell individual women apart, it just sounds like internalized misogyny, because that's what it is. Don't lose sight of the real reason foot binding, breast implants, fake fingernails et.al. are bad: not because they make men lust, but because they prevent women from performing normal human actions with ease and make self-decoration more important than anything else. When we tsk-tsk at a woman's manner of dress because of what we imagine her image does to men's minds or to us, we're doing the patriarchy's work for it. And don't think they're not grateful.

Hugo

Sophonisba, let me be clear. There's a huge difference between posing for money on a website that generates cash flow by selling memberships, and simply wearing what one wants on the street. While we always, always ought to take into account how our words and dress affect others, I think that participating in the commodification of the female body is deeply problematic. I understand the appeal, and of course, honor the economic necessity that exists for some women.

But I suspect that the lion's share of the money that funds SG and other sites doesn't come from folks who think, "Gee, what an interesting and diverse group of young women." As the alliance with Playboy indicates, its a primarily male audience interested in jerking off to exposed female flesh. And to say, "Hey, I have no responsibility whatsoever for how those whose money I am indirectly taking see me and other women" is a bit of a stretch for me. Note that my harshest words were for Suhl -- he's the real scoundrel here; it's clear that many of the SG girls had fine motives. But motives are never enough.

Uzzah

Fellas like Suhl are out to make money off women's bodies in much the same way Flynt is, but in Suhl's case, greed seems hidden behind the rhetoric of edginess, alternative culture, and a rather shallow feminism. It's hard to respect that.

Is anyone else reminded of the Virginia Slims ad campaigns a few years back that claimed to empower women who smoked their products? More than a few gullible women bought into this hype. What BS... People like Suhl should be ashamed, but apparently he's too busy taking money to the bank...

bmmg39

"But if you want to tell a woman that dressing like a sex object hurts all of us because men can't tell individual women apart, it just sounds like internalized misogyny, because that's what it is."

It's also internalized misandry, because men CAN tell individual women apart.

boy genteel
End violence against women AND men.
www.safe4all.org

Anonymous

The only problem with that is posing for pictures requires no skills level but a level of beauty that could be comparable between Suicide Girls and Playboy.

Since when do cameras not work unless you meet some conventional beauty standard? Not to mention that the idea of a singular "level of beauty" has its own problems. (Admittedly, a secondary goal of this line of speculation is to challenge standards of beauty.)

The only difference between them would be but one gets paid; the other doesn't...

If that was the only difference, then it *would* still be exploitative. But there's more to it than that.

But with magazines versus blogs there is a level of writing skills involved (not much some would say however) between magazine writers and blogs. So paying one and not the other makes some sense.

(Apologies to everyone if this is too much of a digression.)

I'd disagree with this assessment; while it's true that people whose writing skills are too poor can self-publish, I think there's not so much difference between the "high end" of each (depending on what your criteria are for "writing skills" - often the question is begged by defining "writing skills" as "ability to be published.")

I think there are really two economies existing side by side: a "publishing" economy that is consumer-driven, and a "blogging" economy that is producer-driven. Similarly, there are "open source software" (producer-driven) economies and "commercial software" (consumer-driven) economies coexisting.

I think that, right now, there is a consumer-driven economy for pornography/erotica that is highly exploitative. What I'm positing is that a producer-driven economy (which already exists on a much smaller scale, mostly on personal blogs and private forums) would have fewer of these sorts of problems. Maybe it wouldn't work - maybe too many people really do want only the conventionally attractive, professionally arranged/retouched images that are most popular; maybe the level of social shaming will always be such that a consumer-driven economy can't be unseated (or maybe non-economic social pressures will keep even a producer-driven economy coercive). I'd like to think that's not the case, though.

Whereas if Suicide girls has the same level of beauty as Playboy, why shouldn't they be paid for their pictures...

Because somehow you think NOT paying these women is empowering them????

Well, as far as I'm aware, the models on that site *are* paid. And I'll repeat, if you left everything else the same and stopped paying the models, it wouldn't be much of an improved situation (though even that would get rid of a large portion of the economic coercion that goes on). There's still the aspect of who has control of the images, and the contexts in which they're placed. A site like that, where control of the images rests with someone who's more beholden to customers than models, is always going to be problematic.

I'm not saying that people should be barred outright from selling images of themselves; if you're still able to make a profit on it in a non-exploitative economy, more power to you.

I don't know bit everytime feminists come up with one of these ideas; somehow women wind up being screwed...

I think that's another reason why feminism is so mistrusted...

I think one of the reasons feminism is so mistrusted is that people are willing to seize on whatever extreme ideas come along and attribute them to feminists in general.

Honestly, I have no idea whether most feminists, even among the sex-positive set, would agree with me about this.

sophonisba

It's also internalized misandry, because men CAN tell individual women apart.

Oh, absolutely. But it's the kind of misandry that demands behavior modification from women, not from men - the premise logically implies that men aren't very smart or very moral, but doesn't suggest that men should worry about this if women can be convinced to do it instead.

While we always, always ought to take into account how our words and dress affect others,

It is very bad for women to believe that we should always consider how our dress affects others, but then, it's perfectly consistent with a culture that treats us as objects of display whose primary job is to be pleasing to the eye. But even the hardest workers deserve some time off from their job once in a while. Your always, always would have us all be Suicide Girls in spirit, every hour of the day.

I think that participating in the commodification of the female body is deeply problematic.

I do, too. I think a lot of porn is dumb and deeply unpleasant, and I think so for feminist reasons, mostly. I don't think it's a good idea to combat it by embracing the old idea that everything a woman does reflects on every other woman - that it doesn't matter how virtuous you are, as long as there's a loose woman or a prostitute out there somewhere to cast general suspicion upon The Sex. The fact that you frame the traditional paradigm in terms of feminist virtue, not sexual virtue - sort of - doesn't mask the essentially rotten, sexist core.

And to say, "Hey, I have no responsibility whatsoever for how those whose money I am indirectly taking see me and other women" is a bit of a stretch for me.

"Me and other women?" You haven't explained how women are to blame for men's inability to distinguish between us. You also aren't addressing my point, which was this: if a woman thinks that posing naked is sexy and empowering, but the man who masturbates to her picture thinks it's degrading and slutty, why does his opinion matter more to you than his? How does his subjective experience override hers, and why is she responsible for it? What, in short, is up with that?

Feminism didn't invent female image-policing by other women, or the fearful need to suppress women's sexual misbehavior by shaming and peer pressure lest men think badly of all of us. Feminism even, some would say, does a pretty good job of subverting such horrors. I don't know why you'd want to put feminism back in the service of denying women's right to individually do inane and foolish things without reflection on the gender to which they belong. That kind of group-reputation concern destroys female solidarity; it doesn't reinforce it.


Anthony

Hugo - you say: "but feminism has long emphasized women's responsibility not to men, but to the sisterhood", yet you wonder why feminism isn't attractive to young women. Even setting aside that the "sisterhood" seems to be exemplified by some rather unattractive personalities, why is it any better to make one responsible to the one half of the human race than the other half? Why indeed, should a person have a generic "responsibility" to any unchosen community, to act in ways which they would not rationally choose to do so?

Anthony

Going back to "Suicide Girls" - when they first started, or at least when I first heard of them, there were a few models who weren't skinny enough to be considered for Playboy. Even now, some of the models have some padding over their abdominal muscles, but not as much, and not as many.

I couldn't begin to tell you if this was because people who like "alterna-chicks" prefer skinny alterna-chicks, or of the guy who runs the site was just imposing his preferences, and had more (and therefore more skinny) models to choose among once his site got popular, or some other reason.

Lauren

OT, I think "sisterhood" is one of the corniest terms to ever come from feminism. I cringe every time I hear it.

Hugo

I've heard the same thing from a few of my students, Lauren; others seem to like it and use it regularly. Got an alternative to express the importance of women's collective commitment to and responsibility for other women?

cmc

I have always loathed the term "sisterhood" as well, and I'm not sure I'm down with the concept behind it either. I'm not sure what "women's collective commitment to and responsibility for other women" even means. I am certainly committed to "women's rights" but the term for that is "feminism."

Also, Sophonisba's point is so good that it bears repeating:

"if a woman thinks that posing naked is sexy and empowering, but the man who masturbates to her picture thinks it's degrading and slutty, why does his opinion matter more to you than his? How does his subjective experience override hers, and why is she responsible for it? What, in short, is up with that?"

That's exactly what drives me nutso. Throughout history men have expressed disdain and contempt for women who have engaged in all sorts of activities -- such as voting or working or wearing pants. If women had refrained from those activities for fear of losing men's respect, we would be in a fine pickle today.

P.D.

Hello,

I am very familiar with Suicidegirls.

I think it is very attractive to teenage girls because they believe the people viewing their pictures are young (under 25) hipster boys and other girls just like them. They kind of want to "show off" their style as teens always do. They do not feel uncomfortable getting naked for their peers. They want to be part of that club.

Many of these girls are barely 18, and to be perfectly honest, look 12 or 13. One girl who modeled for them was shocked when her email box started filling up with letters from strange men in their 40's and 50's. Lots of creepy comments about how young she looked. She didn't even realise these are the people who view her pictures, since they are not active members of the "community".


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