Earlier today I read an article with a clearly provocative title for those of us who make an effort to both study the use of language and be socially conscious that was written in regard to a recent Taylor Swift interview. It includes one member of my list of cringe-worthy phrases (the top spot of that list, for those of you curious, belongs to ‘man up’). What bothers me isn’t Swift as a person—in fact, I understand her sentiment and believe she’s correct insomuch as that there needs to be a sense of balance in any relationship—but I do feel she is doing a disservice to herself when she feigns ignorance about her place as a female role-model or when she incorrectly paints feminism as being “guys versus girls”. What bothers me most is how it is still totally normalized in culture to think about relationships in gendered notions of who ‘wears the pants’; that intimate partnerships are still being seen as an expression of masculinity being inherently dominant and femininity being inherently subservient.
What this is at its base is a problem of cultural perceptions of sex and gender roles that points back as far as early Athens—maybe further. Theorist David Halperin in the essay “Sex Before Sexuality: Pederasty, Politics, and Power in Classical Athens” writes, “even the verb aphrodisiazein, meaning ‘to have sex’ or ‘to take active sexual pleasure,’ is carefully differentiated into an active and a passive form”. He goes on to explain how the act of having sex was considered the kind of thing one does to another person rather than with them. In this way relationships, especially when it comes to sex, have historically been incorrectly labeled in terms of dominance skewed toward a patriarchal system. Halperin continues, “the partner who puts his or her body at the service of another’s pleasure is deemed ‘passive’—read ‘penetrated’…Sexual penetration, and sexual ‘activity’ in general, are, in other words, thematized as domination: The relation between the ‘active’ and the ‘passive’ sexual partner is thought of as the same kind of relation as that obtaining between social superior and social inferior”. Through this historical lens we begin to see the bias emerge, how our culture’s antiquated notions and use of sex as an act of power over another is, often times, belittling. One need only browse any porn site that allows users to upload videos for affirmation of this, how the titles of the clips detail how the receptive actors get their faces, genitals, and asses ‘pounded’, ‘destroyed’, or just plain ‘fucked hard’. Furthermore, these sites tend to portray male submission as merely a kind of fetish; that a female in a dominating or active/penetrative role in regards to a male recipient must also embody a ‘masculine attitude’ put in practice as a threat of violence, that females in positions of sexual ‘power’ are ultimately sadistic and, still, catering to a created male fantasy wherein a woman assumes a position of power that, although unspoken, is meant to be understood to really be reserved for men as it can be found in the majority of male aggressiveness in the other clips presented.
What this fetishization of females in sexual power denies is that heterosexual men are capable of taking pleasure in the role of penetrative recipient, that they need not be shamed and abused by a woman in leather to have a positive anal sexual experience. Even a basic understanding of Freudian ideas on sexuality will reveal that the body, regardless of gender, is full of erotic hotspots including the anus. So why go on pretending and denying? The guilt rests on the shoulders of heterosexism, a system which, alongside patriarchy, has demanded categorization and simplification of society even at the detriment and marginalization of masses of people within its confines. The fear of losing their place of power is one of the defining characteristics of these two systems. What they’ve done to protect themselves is to claim normalcy through self-fulfilling tautology; to reject mutuality and ingrain the fear of being labeled ‘unnatural’ in anyone who participates in or agrees ideologically with something outside of the cultural boundaries they have created.
While Swift herself may not even be aware of her role in this larger ploy for power in a gender-dynamic, she embodies here the product of these oppressive systems and their means of perpetuation, that the mainstream would rather champion a young naïve girl who is perceived as harmless to the power-structures of oppression, who misrepresents or dismisses the ideas set down by legitimate social critiques like feminism, than restructure the popular dynamics of intimacy and human relation for the good of the people at large. To her credit, Swift does espouse that relationships are “the ultimate collaboration,” but admits that when she feel too much power on her side in a relationship, “[she starts] to feel uncomfortable and then [they] break up.” It’s also important to distinguish that mutuality of respect is not a strictly sexual thing, as Swift was not directly addressing sexuality in her interview, but it cannot go ignored that patriarchy and heterosexism use sex as a display of dominance and power as a major indicator of disrespect which should not be quietly tolerated.
It is time to stop helping build the walls that these systems trap us with by claiming blindness to the power of language and to recognize that true intimacy is a partnership of respect that is entirely and unquestionably equal across gender lines and as a practice of basic human decency.
Freedom for all, freedom from all!
No Blogs, No Masters