We know the rhetoric. “Feminism is about supporting women in all of their choices, and in their autonomy.” We are supposed to treat each woman as the sole agent of her own destiny, as the arbiter of her own decisions, and as a completely independent entity. Just as a woman’s choice to work should be celebrated, so should her preference for staying home to raise children, in practice. In some manifestations, this kind of discourse can be taken to a cloying extreme: We see it whenever a prominent woman is called out for her problematic behavior or language, for example. We are supposed to be supporting her, not cutting her down. We should just be happy that a woman has made it at all. Feminism, for some, becomes a team sport in which everyone on your side is universally deserving of your unconditional backing.
For others, though, womanhood is a kind of solidarity which comes with many stipulations. We have all felt the sting of another woman who regards our choices in life as “making us all look bad.” Whether you are the stay-at-home mom whose dedication to your children is interpreted as laziness, or the party girl who enjoys wearing her short club dresses and super-high heels, we often make choices every day that another woman looks down her nose at. Even if it is never fully verbalized, you can feel when you are the one who is going to be sniggered at. For some self-identified feminists, there is a clear definition of what women should be working towards. There is a kind of degradation that is to be avoided, whether that happens in the bank account or on the dance floor.
Of course, most of us can agree that these two versions of fauxminism — the “support women even in their oppressive behavior” and “only support women who are doing things the ‘right way’ as I define it” — are unhealthy and unsustainable. But yet even those of us who do our best to toe the line of “holding women accountable while still supporting their individual life choices” can have moments of difficulty in supporting all choices, some of which seem more forced by society than sought out by the individual.
I recently went to a live porn theater for an ebook I wrote, looking to explore the world of pornography in France. I wanted to see how they viewed the American market, how they viewed the industry in general, and how the women were able to navigate what is so clearly a male-dominated sphere. When your every professional move is catering to the male gaze, it seemed, retaining a full sense of autonomy would be difficult.
When it comes to porn, I’ve always tended to err more towards the side of “women are adults who can participate in what they like, and I’m not here to yuck someone’s yum when it comes to the kinds of things that I might automatically find degrading or unsexy.” There are, however, many compelling arguments made by feminists, prominent and unknown alike, about the damning effects of patriarchy on such an easily-exploitative industry. With free tube sites and amateur videos saturating the market, and with an increasing demand for more explicit or violent work for even less pay, the choices that many women in the industry make are hard to regard as being entirely their own.
Yes, there are moments that can be difficult to watch because of associations we make in our own lives — seeing a man ejaculate indiscriminately on four young women’s faces might have been particularly cringe-worthy for a lot of women in the audience — but that’s not really the issue. The issue is what brings the women in question to that very moment. If the path which leads you to facials is one of autonomy, respect, and active participation in healthy relationships, fine. But if it is one littered with pressure, false promises, abuse, and coercion, then can we really regard it as her choice?
The problem is that, when the porn is playing (or being performed), it’s impossible to tell who is who. And amongst the many female performers I spoke to, there were clear examples from every part of the spectrum. Some of the women were as lucid and proactive about their career prospects as any business person I’d ever met. Other women, beyond clearly being under the influence of a number of substances, seemed to have found themselves in their current situation out of a combination of desperation, naiveté, and exploitation. And while the sex acts themselves — or pornography in general — might not be an inherently dangerous environment for women, as long as so much of it is built on catering to men and their increasingly-graphic interests, there was going to be collateral damage.
As with so many choices that women make, there is always an element of survival and assimilation which plays a palpable role. There are going to be sacrifices we make, or ways we present ourselves, or things we let roll off our backs because we know that we must do so to get ahead as a woman. We can be quick to criticize these choices in another woman because it is so much easier than taking a critical look on the societal factors which led to her options — but it is essential that we do. No woman should be exempt from criticism if she is engaging in damaging or oppressive behavior, but we should also remember that she also lives her life on a certain axis which makes a lot of her choices more difficult.
She is often faced with dichotomies: virgin and whore, mother and working woman, slut and prude, ruined and preserved. And when we talk about supporting all of her choices — even the ones which play directly into a dichotomy which was cut out for her — we should be talking about supporting the respect of womanhood in general. Not everything a woman does will be healthy or positive, but nothing she does should be held against her as a woman. Nothing should be a poor reflection on all women as a whole. Because unless we start talking about ourselves as what we are — individuals caught in a system which often works against us, and not a monolith — we will continue to feed into the kinds of social norms which limit our choices in the first place. Until we do this, we will always just be women, and never fully humans.