Feminism and Facials

In the past few weeks, the topic of facials (the act of one partner ejaculating in another partner's face, most commonly seen by mainstream audiences in the context of heterosexual pornography wherein the female is ejaculated on as a form of submission and/or humiliation) has popped up in posts around the feminist and sex positive blogosopheres.

Discussing the sexual ethics of giving and receiving facials is nothing new. However, when Jessica Wakeman of TheFrisky.com mentioned facials in her article "10 Things Women Forget to Do During Sex", not only did her commenters roar in defiance of her pro-facial opinions, but noteworthy feminists took note as well, and the facial debate ignited in full.

The overwhelming consensus from Wakeman's commenters was that facials are offensive and that letting a man (Wakeman's column at TheFrisky.com is pretty heteronormative and her column was aimed at a facial situation in which a man would ejaculate on a woman's face) ejaculate on a woman's face is humiliating and that no woman should allow herself to be humiliated thusly.

One commenter even wrote, "“Leave [facials] up to the porn stars."

In a follow up article to her "10 Things", Wakeman defended her pro-facial stance more fully. In "Facials: Are they demeaning?", Wakeman decided to disagree with the majority of her commenters by stating that:

"I think leaving facials up to the porn stars—actors who are making the facial appear to humiliate the woman—is what keeps it looking demeaning," Wakeman wrote. "Certainly some facials are depicted in porn as humiliating or degrading, but not every man who wants to give a facial wants it to degrade and humiliate just like it looks onscreen. Many do love and respect their partners, and know, to varying degrees, that porn isn’t real. Likewise, some of those female partners enjoy the act as well."

In essence, Wakeman took a very basic sex positive strategy when debating the facial issue: it's not degrading if I like it and by liking it I can make this formerly degrading act into an empowering one. But two well known feminists took note of Wakeman's position and decided that the facial debate finally needed to be deconstructed more fully.

Amanda Hess at Washington City Paper's blog on gender and culture, The Sexist, quickly wrote a critique of Wakeman's article in a post titled "Semen Facials are like Weddings".

Hess's critique was based on an acceptance of the fact that some women do enjoy receiving a facial from their partner, but that Wakeman's happy-go-lucky/it's empowering defense was ignoring the real reasons some women find the action alluring.

“When Wakeman liberates the facial from the demeaning clutches of the porn industry, she performs a useful little trick for us feminists—she separates her sex life from her personal philosophy...” Hess wrote. “Why? Because getting off is very necessary, very much informed by a tradition of male dominance over women, and can be very, very hard to accomplish if you only allow yourself to get off progressively. Of course, that doesn’t mean that enjoying performing or receiving facials means that you hate women, or that you have no self-respect, or that you’re a bad feminist. It just means that the patriarchy affects a lot of the things that we perform and enjoy on a daily basis, and it’s good to remember that our attempts to recast these acts as “empowering” isn’t so much transgressive as it is convenient.”

In another critique of Wakeman's defense of facials written by Amanda Marcotte of feminist political blog Pandagon.net, "If it's so great, we can be honest about it", Marcotte touched on an equally cutting part of the debate.

“Sex is a wild and woolly thing, and I don’t blame anyone who has integrated sexual shaming into their libido and really gets off on being degraded and shamed.” Marcotte wrote. “If that’s your thing, go with Jesus. Seriously. Get off how you want. I’m glad you’re having fun. But for the love of god, please quit constructing self-serving arguments where you both get to get off on being demeaned while denying that’s what it is.”

So where does this leave us?

What I notice most in this discussion is that there is a tendency for us to try to decide definitively if an act is "right" or "wrong". When Wakeman first suggested the "empowering" aspect of facials, she wrote it in a column titled "10 things women FORGET TO DO during sex". The fact that she framed it in this way lead many people to infer that Wakeman thinks that a woman is not doing sex correctly if she isn't getting ejaculate on her face.

Hess' and Marcotte's responses to this suggestion are extremely important, I think. While Marcotte challenges us to re-think why some people may enjoy getting ejaculate in their face and the fact that it might have a lot to do with its being considered humiliating, Hess reminds us that these sexual decisions and attractions are not proscriptive with relation to our political affiliation with feminism or our moral imperative to be "good" people.

This discussion stood out to me because I have had a very fraught relationship with actions like facials.

The first time I ever learned of a facial was through porn. And after seeing scene after scene of women tensing up and slamming their eyelids closed and feigning a smile as a man reached orgasm and ejaculated onto their faces, I never thought I could think that was even moderately arousing. The beginning of my sexual life was completely uninterested in any sort of humiliation.

I even began to legitimize my being a good feminist on my being a non-subjugated sexual being... Until I began a sexual relationship that changed my desires. For sex is, as Marcotte called it earlier, "a wild and woolly" thing. An action that once disgusted me (and even now under certain contexts the idea of a facial can bring me to tears), has become something that amid particular circumstances I long for.

The arguments brought up by Hess and Marcotte reminded me and reassured me of my ability to be an avid feminist even whilst participating in sexual behavior that may mark me as submissive to, or even humiliated by, a male partner.

But let us not forget that there is much more to facials and similar activities than the basic arguments like to suggest.

Is it all about humiliation and submission? Scarleteen's own Heather Corinna brings a much needed level head and wise words to the argument.

For instance, in an earlier Scarleteen post by Corinna, "Enjoyment and Ejaculation: Inside and Outside", Heather reminds us that there is more going on both mentally and symbolically when actions like giving and/or receiving facials occur.

"Now, some pornography has made a rather big deal out of men ejaculating on women, so it can happen that people who get a lot of their sexual information or cues from pornography may be more interested in this than others," Corinna wrote. "Often in porn that is presented as a sort of humiliation, though I would not say that my sense is that's how most men or women who enjoy each others' fluids in real life usually feel about it when they engage in ejaculating on or inside of a partner's body.

"For some men and women, for instance, semen is highly symbolic stuff. Think about it this way: if, during or after sex, we could just hand a partner one of our ova, there'd be some serious symbolism in that, right? We'd literally be giving them, in their hand, what could potentially create new life. That's heavy-duty. Because semen contains sperm, and thus, part of the material for creating life, it's understandably a body fluid that some men and women find to be especially meaningful or important, especially when shared."

Through this lens, the entire facial discussion becomes much less political and much more personal and emotional.

While there are huge holes in the facial argument that I have cited here (including the fact that this has been a heteronormative battle, ignoring both that women can ejaculate in their partner's faces and that gay men certainly have a valuable perspective on the subject as well), I think a lot can be gained from taking note of this battle over feminism and facials.

While many of us look only at the topical opinions of sexual activities and then become worried, I find it reassuring to be reminded of the fact that sexuality is not a cut and dry subject.

What is important here, in my opinion, is the likeness that this discussion has with other discussions where sex positive attitudes and feminist attitudes are pitted against one another.

The idea of "sex positive" can get thrown around without thought, as I believe Wakeman did. Wakeman wanted to create an empowering idea, but she did not leave room for the fact that sexual activities are different for every person, every couple, every sexual experience. What may be empowering in one moment can feel abusive in the next if coupled with a different context.

And this is why proscribing sexuality is so difficult and so troublesome.

Instead of trying to dictate on whether a certain sexual behavior makes a person "good" or "bad", I think our time could be better spent by using our intellectual skills to foster people's individuality and confidence regarding our sexual desires. Instead of telling people that what they do with their sexual desires will interfere with their political or cultural integrity, maybe we should treat these touchy subjects with the same tolerance and respect that we have come to expect regarding our other identity affiliations.

We are all different, from desires to our voting patterns, but neither sector should be made into a rubric on which to judge our character. So whether you like facials or not, your capacity to be a good feminist, woman, man, person (whatever identity you are trying to be "good" at) should never be made to feel compromised.

Links for further reading: Amanda Hess: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/08/24/semen-facials-are-like-weddings/
Amanda Marcotte: http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/comments/if_its_so_great_we_can_be_honest_about_it/
Jessica Wakeman's defense of facials: http://www.thefrisky.com/post/246-facials-are-they-demeaning/
Jessica Wakeman's original post: http://www.thefrisky.com/post/246-10-things-women-forget-to-do-during-sex/
Heather Corinna: http://www.scarleteen.com/article/advice/enjoyment_and_ejaculation_inside_and_outside


Nice post, Mary!

As I also mentioned to you, I think it can be very helpful to take gender out of the discussion, too. At least for part of it, so people can better look at WHY gender is an issue. For instance, are the same issues present when we're talking about external ejaculation -- be it on a face or otherwise -- when both partners are female, both partners are male, and/or when the partner ejaculating is female? If not, why not? Sometimes, I feel like the walls so often hit in this discussion, and where it seems to always wind up in the same places have to do with the fact that so often, the people discussing it are either heterosexual or are only talking about sex between men and women.

It might also be worth asking if there are any such politics when it comes to anywhere someone might ejaculate. If it's all very different when we're talking about a man ejaculating inside a woman's vagina, for instance, why?

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Great ideas, many good points, I appreciate your consideration of all of the varying viewpoints on this subject. I wonder why this act is so prominent in pornography, especially considering that it probably doesn't happen much it people's own personal lifes. But then again, there is also porn where people ejaculate on peoples feet, which also seems strange. The act of feet ejaculation appears to be more about admiration more than humiliation, but all the same it seems very weird (of course there are all types of sexual preferences, whatever gets you off!). I don't know if you can say the same thing about facials. To me it seems more humiliating. This coming from a man's perspective.

First of all, I'd like to say that I am a man, and in no way am I trying to promote my opinions by
pretending I'm from the opposite sex. However, since I am a man, I can give a little insight as to why I believe that that the act itself is not demeaning.

I think we can all agree that the entire sexual act is about giving and receiving. I'm actually offended that woman would label it as demeaning. Especially, if it's welcomed on the receiving end. For instance, my girlfriend loves it. My girlfriend, who I love and have been with for years, lovingly asks for it; and to be honest I love to give it. Now before you jump to conclusions, let me explain in further detail of the mind set and why I believe it's ok. In my opinion, it's a gesture of acceptance. I don't see how a woman receiving this from someone she loves or cares about is in any way demeaning. A couple can do WHATEVER they want in the privacy of their own bedroom. So for a woman to harrase another woman for doing it is ridiculous in my opinion. Of course, this act -can- be demeaning, but so can all sexual acts. I would never ever condone this act or any other sexual practice to be done without the willingness of both parties. In that willingness and acceptance, there was a choice and a woman has the choice, as she should, to choose to do whatever she wants with her body unless it's harmful.

We're not talking about a woman who does this to random strangers everyday. We are talking about the actual act. As I've mentioned before, it's a gesture of acceptance. It shows her partner how comfortable she is him. You might as well rule out all submissive acts as masagonistic, if you're going to go there. I would do anything to please my girlfriend and she'd do the same; so where does the problem come in?

Here's and example: A lady who willingly and regularly gives oral sex to her partner wouldn't be considered a victim would she? I think not. However, a woman who does this to other guys she just met, who are exploiting her for that reason, is clearly wrong. Those are the woman you have to protect and inform. Some woman and men do acts for the wrong reasons, and sometimes they're in denial about it. But you can't single out the act because, it does exist on a loving level. I assure you.

I once knew a girl who loved to be choked as she was having sex(not a partner of mine). Clearly, that can be considered very demeaning, but who's to say it's wrong if it's something she really wants? My only discrepancy on that one is the safety. Obviously, facials are in no way dangerous. The disagreement lyes in the message or the symbolism behind the act. I do not think any less of my girlfriend for providing me the pleasure of enjoying this act, nor would I want another woman to judge what she does with the guy she tell she wants to spend the rest of her life with. I have always given her the option of denying it. So, in a way, I am defending my girlfriend and any woman who would be ridiculed over something they have willingly done to either put a smile on their partners face or for their own enjoyment.

Woman, have a lot to worry about. They are not only judged by the opposite sex, but by woman as well! I happen to be very sensitive towards the female population. I have three sisters and a mom I love to death. I wouldn't want them to ever be mistreated and I'm glad that feminist still fight today to promote equality and safety and against the dehumanization of woman. But you need aim your guns at where it matters. Why isn't there ever any discrepancy on dominatrix or any of the male submissive behavior? You're undermining the serious issues here, and those are the acts that are done against a persons will. The way women are whistled at or treated in public, those are the causes or topics that should be brought up to our attention.

"A lady who willingly and regularly gives oral sex to her partner wouldn't be considered a victim would she? I think not."

That lady might think she does this willingly but the truth is that we are never really completely free even when we take decisions.
Our decisions are always unconsciously influenced by out education, the in influence of the society we live in and our own personal experiences and traumas.

We are in 2012, but the society is very patriarchal. Women are still taught since you ages to submit to men. This is very clear in how we raise girls. The examples are very easy to find and starts with the parents buying clothes and toys. Still today girls are taught that they are worth than men. It is very difficult as an adult to go against the formatting we received when young, even very difficult to be aware of it.

I do think that if a girl was raised in a society where women and men where really equal, women not taught to be submissive from young age, she would probably not like facials

Don't tell me what I should or should not like!
-Feminist Rachel.

It might also be worth asking if there are any such politics when it comes to anywhere someone might ejaculate. If it's all very different when we're talking about a man ejaculating inside a woman's vagina, for instance, why?

because a face is different than a vagina. my face represents myself. it's the symbol of myself to the world. i dont want my boyfriend peeing on my face as he stands over me, and i dont want him ejaculating on my face either as i kneel in submission. (i don't think he'd care to do that anyway.) i can be kind of submissive in other ways, but this is one i just do not understand. it's a person's FACE, it has so much more meaning than like, an elbow. to each their own, but the face is kind of ...sacred, i guess? my face and vagina are just different. i use my nose to smell, and i use my ears to hear. i am not knocking the women who like it, but i question why they really like it. on most porn websites i've seen, facials only have to do with humiliation. if that's one cup of tea, so be it, but i think it's a context of culture and nothing else, and our current culture is pretty degrading to women, as much as it ever was. for men to sit around and say that it means nothing is bullshit.

i think everyone is overlooking an important part of this. you're saying you find it humiliating/degrading,"because a face is different than a vagina. my face represents myself. it's the symbol of myself to the world." i think of sexual ejaculate in a fairly symbolic way, so i am not offended by it. for me personally, i find it highly erotic and romantic. our faces are the image of ourselves to the world, so what could be sexier than a person orgasming to the sight of only your face? i don't find that humiliating, i find it to be highly personal and special. sometimes much more so than someone reaching orgasm because of a sexual organ that is my own, but does not uniquely represent me as a person.
i honestly don't care what people do in their own bedrooms, but i do get offended when someone says that i don't fully understand my own sexual motivations.

Honestly, I think something like this is up to personal opinion. For me, I don't like porn. I honestly couldn't get off on it if I tried, simply because, to me, sex really isn't going to be enjoyable when 1) its disrespecting women 2) the woman is faking her enjoyment and 3) the man receives no pleasure from making the woman feel good. So... basically, facials are a no for me, as well as most sex in pornography (which is almost always completely man-centred, and if the woman wants to get off, she has to get herself off. Not cool) unless my girl WANTS it; because for me, I'd much rather not.

For me, As great as sex "feels" physically, the only thing I can imagine being satisfied with is my girl enjoying the experience. To be honest, if I had to choose between getting off and my girl being left hanging, and the reverse, I would take the reverse any day. There is nothing more beautiful to me than the satisfied look on my girlfriend's face after I kiss her. When I get married to her (yes, I'm old fashioned, I know) I look forward to seeing her satisfied in a much more intimate way!

Keep politics out of the bedroom? OK, that may be a nice thought but the truth is that everything in our lives is so politicized these days -- just look at legal issues surrounding abortion (I say, "Keep your laws off my body!")-- right down to the very personal matters of pleasure. Porn is such a hot button issue and I can see arguments for and against, but when it comes down to partnered sex, I'm going to do things that feel right in the bedroom (and beyond ;)) and not let political discourse dictate what I do or don't do when it is mutually desired and enjoyed. That's one big aspect of (sex-positive) feminism to me.

That's not to say that I don't appreciate the conversations being had. Mary, thank you very much for this great blog and summaries/criticism of the various links!

Additionally, I do find it ironic, as Heather also alluded to, that this one particular sexual act is getting so much attention (or criticism) when so many people (Scarleteen included!) are trying to get away from hyperfocusing on any one sexual act-- namely, how penis-in-vagina intercourse was/is too often (mistakenly) referred to as The One and Only form of sex.

[And, because sex is quite a slippery thing and fluids can end up in inconvenient places, wanted or not, here is a link about Ejaculation in the Eye. :)]

One consideration for the appropriateness of facials comes from the fact that some of us don't particularly like the taste of male ejaculate, and when fellatio is performed to climax some people feel that something has to be done other than swallowing. The receiving partner may feel that just spitting it out would be insulting, or that spitting is in something other way inappropriate or inconvenient.
The easiest way to deal with this is to back off at the moment of climax and let the chips fall where they may. This is not a matter of humiliation or submission, but of practicality. It is a bit messy, but if you're going to insist on tidiness, you're in the wrong pursuit.

she said leighsurely

For a lot of people growing up/ living in the Global North, it can feel that pornorgraphy is everywhere. Whether we have actually watched porn or not, we may be familiar with different aspects of sexual performance related to porn -we are all exposed to porn culture, as it were. So someone who is begining to discover various sexual acts may not have a chance to form ideas and discover their feelings about, say, a facial, a priori to porn-related meanings of the act. But this is not true for every single person in the Global North and it is surely not true for people in other parts of the world, where culturally and scoially constructed meanigns for various acts are entirely different.
This article moved me to comment becuase as someone who grew up in South Asia, I was exposed to different visuals of sexual acts meant to demean women in hetero-normative sex. Facials, not so much. In fact, it took exposure to pop culture in the U.S for me to realize that a facial was anything more than higher SES Indian women geting mud-packs slathered on their face by economic migrant East Asian refugees at urban beauty saloons.
To me personally, the first and enduring meanings of semen on my body and my face have had to do with the sensation of liquid on skin, the texture, the colour difference and the feeling of intimate sharing (like saliva-swapping) and of course, explosive completion!
And the parts of my sexual repertoire that I find turn me on with a sprinking of humiliation thrown in (not ashamed to admit it!) are so coded into visuals I internalised as a child growing up on Indian movies that it would be incprehensibly innocous to the 'western' gaze.
It's all contextual, isn't it?

I think you raise good points about the cultural context, re-sister.with.love. Based on personal experience growing up, I don't think there is necessarily porn all over in the global North but there is certainly a connection between commercialism/consumerism and sexuality, like how it's used in marketing contexts, if that's maybe what you're alluding to? I do think there is also diversity in porn even if the mainstream variety is much more prevalent; I have never seen porn that could be described as "humiliating" myself but it obviously has a market. I'm definitely intrigued by the "sprinkling of humiliation... coded into visuals" you saw and internalized while watching Indian movies growing up-- could you share a few examples. :)

Quote by re-sister.with.love:"To me personally, the first and enduring meanings of semen on my body and my face have had to do with the sensation of liquid on skin, the texture, the colour difference and the feeling of intimate sharing (like saliva-swapping) and of course, explosive completion!"

I love your positive, vivid description there-- thanks so much for sharing this upbeat take on it!

I am a male who has had several girlfriends who were the ones who initiated the idea of receiving regular facials from me. I never previously mentioned it or asked for it in any way. It was also talked about before hand to assure we were both on the same understanding about it. There was always an expression of enjoyment form the girls and in one case, an instantaneous orgasm.

So it's really just not for some women and others clearly love it. There is no one size fits all here just like any other sex act. Some people just are more open minded about things than others and thus are able to enjoy things others could not. With the diversity and personalization of each sexual personality we all have as living, thinking beings, I'm not sure why everyone seems to be looking for such a universal answer for all in regards to this topic. Can't we just have our OWN things we enjoy? Puzzling isn't it?