Doubts about the views of some feminists.

Sam
asks:
Hi you guys! I sometimes see some self-proclaimed feminists posting on the internet in the name of sex knowledge, saying that women's vaginas are supposed to be used for childbirth, so it's harder for women to have vaginal orgasms through sex than to masturbate to clitoral orgasms, and that this is the main reason for some of the "feminists" who are against women having sex or hook-up/casual sex. Some even believe that women should masturbate instead of having sex, and that it would slut-shame those women who are hook-up or having casual sex. I don't know if sexologists really have such findings and theories, but it feels very biased and unscientific, so I hope to get a more scientific answer here. Another question is that although I am not very good at makeup and dressing, I think that both men and women love beauty, the pursuit of beauty and fashion is a very natural thing, I think beauty is a lifelong pursuit of human beings. and both men and women are in the pursuit of beauty and art until death do us part. But I have also seen some feminists call on women not to put too much value on beauty and not to spend too much time on it to reduce appearance anxiety and body anxiety, I think there is some truth in this, but I have also seen some feminists on the Internet making unkind comments about women who wear makeup and dress up and even think that women want to wear makeup and dress up beautifully to please men and call on women not to pursue beauty and ignore it. Isn't it a bit too much to say that beauty is useless? Some feminist bloggers say that the less developed the beauty and fashion industry is in countries such as Germany and Nordic countries, the more equal the gender is, the more feminist it is. I would love to hear you guys‘s opinions here.
Siân replies:

Hi Sam!

This is a great question. I love it for two reasons: first, because learning about feminism seems like a pretty great use for the internet, but far more importantly because you're questioning the things you are reading and looking for additional perspectives so you can make your own mind up. I'll get to your specific points in a second, but first let's take a moment to think about what feminism is.

I am noticing that the people in your question are relying on pretty binary ideas of what men and women are, and what women "should" be doing. We're going to unpick that as we go, but for the rest of my answer to make sense let's keep in mind that there are many genders besides just men or women - including nonbinary and agender folks. Also, not every woman has a vagina, and some people who have them don't identify as women.

What's your feminism?

At its most basic, feminism is pretty simple. It's basically just the idea that gender shouldn't impact our rights, value, role or opportunities.

That seems hard to argue against, right? So how can feminism be so controversial sometimes?

Well, like anything that has been important to millions of people over the course of decades, there are a lot of directions you can go from that central premise of equal rights, value, role and opportunities, so different branches of feminism have emerged. Most of the time that's a good thing! We often agree on the fundamentals, and there is room for nuance and for different people to focus their effort on different issues. Perhaps I have a focus on reproductive justice and you're looking at labour rights, and together we can work towards getting better parental leave in the workplace.

Occasionally though, someone will describe themselves as a feminist and hold views that are completely incompatible with my understanding of feminism. For example, my feminism says that people of all genders should have equal rights and opportunities. It recognises trans people as both real, whole people and as the experts on their own gender. When people start expressing anti-trans bias that doesn't sound like feminism to me. I can't see how gatekeeping what womanhood is or isn't makes the world a better place for anyone.

The important point is that there is no single authority on feminism, though you will find lots of deeply held beliefs. One of the major branches of modern feminism is intersectional feminism, and like many of us at Scarleteen I'm an intersectional feminist. I'll leave you a link at the bottom where you can read more about what feminism means to Scarleteen but the reason I'm telling you this is because you came here asking for our opinion and so my responses are necessarily going to come from my feminism - it's up to you to build yours.

Is it unfeminist to have sex

My feminism also says everyone gets to decide what sex is right for them, which it sounds like some of the people you've seen posting will disagree with. I do see where they are coming from but it sounds like the argument you're describing is taking a couple of nuggets of truth and trying to convince you that there is only one logical solution - and a pretty extreme one at that. Let's start with the nuggets of truth:

  • TRUE: people with vulvas and vaginas generally find it easier to orgasm when direct clitoral stimulation is a part of sex, rather than just having something inside in the vagina.
  • TRUE: there is an "orgasm gap" between heterosexual cisgender men and heterosexual cisgender women.

Sure, "don't have sex" is one option, but that seems like a pretty surface-level fix. Diving a bit deeper, I can tell you that people with vulvas aren't inherently less able to experience pleasure than people with penises, so maybe the problem isn't sex, maybe the problem is the kinds of sex on offer. When we talk about sex at Scarleteen we don't just mean penis-in-vagina intercourse, we mean all the things people can do to express sexual feelings - plenty of which often has nothing to do with genitals and everything to do with expressing and exploring sexuality more broadly, including fantasy, making out, massage or whatever it is that turns a person on and potentially gets them off. With that in mind, I can see a bunch of other ways we can approach these issues:

  • OPTION 1: explore everything solo sex has to offer, and skip partnered sex if it's not doing it for you
  • OPTION 2: expand your definition of sex and explore and find out what kinds of partnered sex you and any partners you have sex with enjoy
  • OPTION 3: help create a world where everyone goes into sexual experiences expecting them to be pleasurable and safe, by talking about it and by making them so for themselves and everyone they are sexual with

Since I volunteer here at Scarleteen, I don't think it's a secret that I love Option 3, but I don't think this is an either/or kind of menu, it's more like pick-n-mix. The best option depends on the person and the context and I'm sure you can add a whole lot of other ideas for how to handle the pleasure gap we've been talking about.

The thing that troubles me about the views you're describing is that the people in question are taking what's right for them and assuming that it is universal. One person choosing masturbation over sex? Great, you do you. Turning that into an ideological position and telling me what MY sex life should look like? No thank you. My feminism says my body, my rules so telling me that my vagina is "supposed to be" for childbirth doesn't sound like any kind of feminism I recognise. In fact, it sounds a lot like patriarchy.

Is it unfeminist to wear makeup?

Phew. This is a big one. There are a lot of different strands to this argument and since I'm neither a philosopher nor a feminist scholar I am going to massively oversimplify. My simplest answer is that this is just another strand of my body, my rules. Wearing make-up or dresses is a matter of individual choice. This bears a little bit more examination though, if you're up for the ride.

The problem isn't with the individual choice to wear makeup or not, it's that a lot of people feel like they don't HAVE a choice, that they must wear makeup to look good, maybe in part because their value is in their looks. It might be easier to think about this using a different example: deciding whether to shave your legs. For a lot of people, removing leg hair has become the "default" for women, and the thought of going out in a skirt with hairy legs is even terrifying to some. When we use the argument of individual choice this doesn't make a lot of sense, right? Surely it's just another choice? Except, somehow what could be a personal decision is suddenly a deeply political statement.

This is how beauty becomes a feminist issue. I stopped shaving my legs a few years ago, and it didn't feel like a big deal. In fact, it did just feel like a personal choice, but only because the combination of my politics and feeling comfortable in my own skin made space for that choice. That space doesn't exist for a lot of people. In the second link below Sam goes into a bit more detail on why that is. To me, feminism is about making more space, for more individual choices. This goes both ways though, if I should feel free to not shave my legs, I should also feel free to wear makeup today without being accused of "betraying feminism" or risking not being taken seriously.

One part of my feminism linked to this is the idea that gender norms hurt everyone, especially when we get really caught up in the gender binary the way the folks you refer to in your question have. The fact that we look down on traditionally "feminine" things like fashion and cosmetics also seems pretty unfeminist to me. By segregating stuff into boxes for arbitrary ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine we are cutting a lot of people off from things they might enjoy and taking choices away from them. Guys should have more fashion options and get to play with makeup! Nonbinary people should be able to access the full range of gender expression without fear of harassment or having their identity questioned!

So now you have my opinion. What I love about your question, though, is that you are in the process of discovering your own feminism, and you get to decide whether it feels feminist for you to have sex, or have casual sex, or pursue beauty, or wear makeup. I hope that whatever you decide you leave room for me to choose whether or not I want to do those things too.

Want to learn more?

If you want to talk about any of this in more detail, or get help figuring out what it means for you, come over to the Scarleteen Boards!

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