(Image by Ian used under CC license via)
Disclaimer: This post is going to talk a lot about sex, so for my relatives out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I was recently walking around Tokyo’s Electric Town, a sensory overload of video game stores, electronics boutiques, and maid cafés. Wait, what? The young women outside these cafés were dressed in lacy maids’ outfits, complete with fishnets, platform shoes and cat ears on their heads. Addressing their customers as “Master,” they apparently serve them on one knee, providing spoon-feedings and massages to those willing to pay extra. These cafés were everywhere.
The guy accompanying me probably sensed my feminist judgment before I voiced it. “So, what would have to change for you to be okay with it?” he asked.
Quite simply, half the cafés would cater to female customers, hosted by provocatively dressed, eager-to-please, teenage-looking boys. Half the people on the street in Tokyo are women, but the maid cafés offer them only work, not service. No wonder nerd women feel so alone. But it’s not fair to single out Electric Town. Every well-known naughty incarnation of sex from the Playboy Mansion to token event dancers embodies the same problem: Whether selling dominance or submission, it’s all for the straight male customer. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine has identified one of the panes of the glass ceiling to be the not uncommon tradition of businessmen bonding by going to strip clubs together. The most a straight female customer can hope for at such venues is to be bored, however much her partner may hope she’s taking down notes.
Just as the word “doctor” or “lawyer” almost always causes a listener to envision a man, the word “escort,” or “stripper” evokes a woman. Girls are aware of this from the earliest of ages. Many have argued with me that the lack of lascivious fare catering to female clients is indicative of supply and demand; women aren’t as interested in commercial forms of sex, so there aren’t any. It is true that the demand may not be overt enough for the market to notice, but this is not because it is non-existent. It is because, like the demand for non-heteronormative sexuality, it has been discouraged for millennia.
Men are animals, they can’t help it, goes the traditional view. But women are not and thus they should only be sexual when satisfying men’s desires, either by playing the role of the virgin he wants to have a family with or the whore he wants to have fun with. Yet if women’s sex drive is indeed naturally lower than men’s, why are so many societies so concerned with suppressing it?
Around the world from Kuwait to Kansas, authoritarians go to great lengths to reduce if not altogether prohibit female sexual expression. Over 92 million girls have undergone genital mutilation in Africa alone in order to reduce their libido. American evangelical Christians oppose mandating the HPV vaccine for pre-teen girls, arguing that reducing the fear of cervical cancer will increase girls’ promiscuity. In Haiti, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, “honor” killings and crimes of passion in instances of adultery are still legally permissible (only) when it is a female who has had pre-marital or extramarital sex. A 2002 U.N. report found legislative provisions allowing for partial defense of “honor” killings in Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Peru, the Palestinian National Authority, and Venezuela. Let me repeat: Politicians, religious leaders and parents endorse scaring women with the threat of murder, others with the threat of cancer, to control their sexuality.
I’m sure this sounds outrageously antiquated to most readers, but aside from the fact that it is a grave reality for women in many cultures, vestiges of this machismo endure in secular culture. Guys still try to insult each other by attacking their mothers’ sex lives, and women’s bodies and promiscuity are still discussed far more than men’s. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Your dad’s a whore”? Or heard a guy who won’t put out described as “frigid”? Chloe Angyal summed it up beautifully at New York’s Slutwalk this past October:
The idea behind the word “slut,” and the beliefs and behavior that it justifies, is alive and well. This idea says that sex decreases a woman’s worth. This idea says that a woman who steps outside the bounds of acceptable femininity by enjoying sex, or seeking sex, or having a lot of sex, deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her… This idea says that almost anything a woman does, says, wears or is, can be used to justify that violence. Are you confident and outgoing? That could have been construed as flirting, and that is practically consent. Are you shy and reticent? You should have been confident and outgoing enough to firmly say “no.” Are you considered attractive by the standards of our culture? Well, you know how men get around pretty women. Are you considered unattractive by the standards of our culture? What man would force himself on an ugly woman? You must have asked for it. This idea sets up a no-win situation, where no woman is pure enough to be blameless.
However, as women’s scantily clad bodies are condemned in Congress and in churches while being used to advertise everything from ice cream to phone companies, I suspect it’s not only the suppression of female desire at work. When I imagine men being marketed as boy toys, the first obstacle that comes to mind is homophobia. I’m sure you can just hear the shouts of “Yuck! Sick!” that would erupt if male butts were given as much attention on television as female breasts are, or if guy-on-guy action were insinuated in music videos as frequently as lesbianism is. Men who dislike the self-objectifying performances of Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams or male ballet dancers usually call them gay slurs. I feel safe in assuming similar insults would be hurled by many male Star Wars fans had the master at Jabba the Hut’s palace been a madam who enslaved Luke Skywalker on a chain in a pair of golden briefs. In 2008, a study found nearly 40% of women appearing in films wore sexually revealing clothing, compared to 7.8% of men, proving that straight women put up with sexy representations of their gender with the same frequency that straight men are shielded from it. The homophobia behind these cultural patterns is the very same that restricts gay sexuality to the gay district. And it is often to these corners that lusty women go. Sex and The City was addressing a real problem when it encouraged women to watch gay male porn in order to see men that are truly sexualized.
However, as discussed in my last post, sexualization comes at a price when it is the result of overwhelming demand, not free choice. The American Psychological Association says a person is sexualized when their “value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; [when] a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; [when] a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” Self-objectification is a free choice an individual can make only insofar as that individual has never been pressured into it. Bombarded with the media images cited above, women are taught to self-objectify from girlhood on. Even the professional dominatrix, no matter how powerful, is fulfilling a male customer’s requests. The beauty standards embodied by these sexualized models result in women and gay men suffering from eating disorders at far higher rates than straight men. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes:
I object—strenuously—to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage. Long, long, long before marriage. I… want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is. I want her to do it for herself. I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire. I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy. The virgin/whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to see self-objectification as a female rite of passage.
Reciprocity is the key word. If you want your girlfriend to accompany you to a maid café, you’d better be willing to follow her to a Fantasy Boys’ Strip Tease. If you want her to learn a naughty routine to add some spark, you’d better learn one for her. If you want your wife to be fine with you sleeping around, you’d better encourage her to have affairs. If you ask for oral sex, you’d better be willing to give it. And don’t you dare make your daughter wear a purity ring until marriage if you won’t demand the same of your son or your own self. Indeed, if the social pressure that urges women to submit were diverted to straight men, the resulting dialogue would reveal a great deal about how much free choice really enters into it.
Studies in sex-positive feminism and BDSM culture reveal that many self-confident, consenting individuals are interested in the sex industry, but without the gender disparity pop culture promotes. And while it is true that many women have no interest in commercial forms of sex like pornography or strip clubs, nor do many men. Whether the red light district is silly or sexy is a matter of taste. Whether it is male chauvinist is not. In the words of one YouTube commenter—a rare source of inspiration—“this is what music videos would look like if women ran the world.”
Look ridiculous? In the words of Nadine Gordimer, “So many sensual moves are, if you set yourself outside of them.” It’s no more ridiculous than the song it parodies or the cat ears donned by the Electric Town maids. If every second maid were replaced with men posing like Bret and Jemaine do, I’d find nothing wrong with Electric Town, except for its carbon footprint.