Add new comment

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