what’s more degrading?

What’s more degrading: engaging in a sex act that some people think is gross, or being told that regardless of how you feel about it, someone else is qualified to tell you what that sex act means?

(Warning: if you’re not comfortable reading about some of the things I do in bed, stop here. I’m not worried about you garden-variety perverts; I put this disclaimer in because I do have family members who read this blog.)

Not too long ago, a friend of mine pointed me to a blog post at pandagon.net, entitled “If it’s so great we can be honest about it,” on the topic of semen facials. No, not the latest fancy beauty treatment – I’m talking about the standard porn-flick shot of a woman getting a shot of jizz in the face (generally at the conclusion of a blow job). The short version is, the writer, Amanda, objects to people (starting with another blogger, specifically) who feel that semen facials can be anything other than degrading to the person on the receiving end of the jizz. She argues that enjoying degradation is fine and dandy if you’re honest about it, but when you pretend something’s not degrading when in fact it is, you’re being intellectually dishonest and that pisses her off.

Needless to say, I find this pretty problematic. It’s a model that assigns exactly two options to the act: degradation and honesty, or degradation and dishonesty. No room for a variety of meanings to the act itself.

I personally don’t have any strong feelings about facials, and my experience in the realm has been minimal and, if memory serves, accidental, so hardly a strong basis from which to argue on any personal level about the relative degradation of such an act. Plus, I don’t much like the taste or feel of jizz (produced by people of any sex/gender) on its own merits, and I’m not personally into being degraded. So I really have no personal investment in this one as far as the act itself. But I do take issue with the general idea that anyone can decide what the universal meaning of a sexual act might be.

It’s been interesting to read the comments thread in which a number of very articulate people challenge Amanda on exactly this point—the idea that she, as a feminist, can dictate or judge the emotional qualities of people’s experiences within a given sexual act, and that if anyone disagrees with her classification system of what’s degrading and what’s not, that person is necessarily being dishonest with themselves (and by extension with the world at large) about what’s really going on.

One of the comments, in that vein, reads, “… it’s not that the association is wrong, it’s that it’s not necessarily universal, or even close to that.” In comments 37 and 38, Amanda reacts to that as follows:

“I’m skeptical of that, sorry. It’s not universal, because admitting that it is brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions that might involve men getting to do it less and think about it more. We don’t disagree that peeing in someone’s face has a very specific meaning, but mostly because women can do it to men, and so avoiding the issue isn’t an option. (Comment #37)

Which, by the way, I think peeing on someone is a fine way to spend your time. If it gets you off, go for it! But it’s interesting that people can be honest about the psychosexual issues being brought out by watersports. The honesty of it makes it a lot better all around, because you can say no with a clear conscience if being degraded isn’t your thing, and if someone asks for it, you’re allowed to acknowledge where they’re coming from.” (Comment #38)

Of course, this makes the whole thing even worse. Now, rather than just focusing on facials as unquestionably degrading, she’s adding piss play to the mix. I’m willing to believe that she’s got some first-hand experience of the facial, or has at least seen some porn that upset her, but as soon as she starts to wade into the murky waters of BDSM play, by her own implication—as in, I assume she isn’t a BDSM player or piss enthusiast herself or she’d have been (intellectually) honest and said so—she’s out of familiar territory and by all evidence she’s out of her depth.

For starters, her statement (in comment 37) assumes that we don’t disagree—when in fact “we,” by and large, do disagree on the meanings of peeing in someone’s face.

She seems to think there’s a universal view of what watersports are about, even just among enthused practitioners. I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but as a longtime BDSM player and as someone who enjoys watersports, I gotta say, the narratives through which players understand their play in this realm are incredibly diverse. For some, piss is degrading and that’s why they like it, with all the “intellectual honesty” Amanda praises them for—and, for the record, I am one such person. But for others (including me at certain times), that’s just not what’s going on, and I simply can’t buy that this makes them, or me, intellectually dishonest. Here are a few of the narratives I’ve heard:

For some, piss is a rich and flavourful bodily fluid and a person can feel intimately connected to their partner when they smell it, drink it or feel it on their bodies—like feeling the cooling of wet saliva on the skin, like tasting someone’s come or even menstrual blood, like smelling the sweat in someone’s armpit—as in, for some people it’s an intimate treat that signifies closeness. (People even play with the types of food and drink they ingest before piss play to make the taste sweeter and more enjoyable for their play partner. Pineapple good, asparagus bad.)

For some, it’s about age play, returning to an emotional state that’s reminiscent of childhood or infancy and peeing in their diapers—and this is often psychological play that’s not sexual, but rather, about playing with trust and care and vulnerability (baby/nurse infantilism scenarios, for example).

For some, it’s a way of mutually breaking social taboo in a “public but secret” way (potentially an extension of the “intimacy” paradigm but combined with some mild exhibitionism or the thrill of getting caught), such as someone I know who took her date to a restaurant, took a wine glass into the bathroom and filled it with piss, and then brought it back to table for her lover to enjoy without anyone else nearby knowing. This would be a similar thrill to using an under-the-clothing remote-control vibrator at a board meeting.

For some, it’s a solo pursuit that’s purely a sensual pleasure: the act of enjoying the smells and textures of the fluids our own bodies produce is forbidden in polite company, but some indulge in playing with their own urine for the sheer enjoyment of the human sensuality of it, as an act that’s about natural curiosity and self-love, much like basic masturbation.

So in addition to having no concept of the array of meanings—some degrading, some not—attached to piss play, Amanda also attempts to draw a false gender comparison. Basically she seems to be saying that patriarchy has us arguing about the potential for a non-degrading facial because it’s in men’s best interests to have women believe facials are not degrading so they can spray their girlfriends’ faces with jizz and get away with enjoying it as degrading. But, by her logic, because girls can pee on guys too, that equalizes the playing field, and so there’s no patriarchal motive for stating it’s non-degrading, and so we all agree it’s degrading. I’ve already argued this one. But this further element of the piss comparison fails to hold water (hah!) in that this implies that while men can ejaculate on women’s faces, women can’t ejaculate on men’s faces—which just isn’t true. The amount of ejaculate a woman can produce is staggering, and female ejaculation happens sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I’ve certainly had the experience of accidentally shooting a half-cup of fluid straight up some poor cunnlinguist’s nose, not with any degradation in mind, but just because that’s what my body did. (I’ve also had the experience of using ejaculate to degrade, and of allowing someone to drink it as a treat—very different energies in each of those scenarios too!)

Now let’s insert all this into the larger context of BDSM play as a whole. Amanda also wrote, in the original post, “I don’t disagree that people can bracket off their sex life and otherwise be good to each other—S&M types swear they do it all the time, and I believe them. But what’s great about them is they admit that the degradation is the point.”

Again, Amanda demonstrates her lack of familiarity with the BDSM community and its mores. She once again assumes universal agreement—this time among BDSMers—about all of our acts, and that such a universal agreement is also all about degradation. And again, I beg to differ. For starters, BDSM isn’t necessarily a question of “bracketing off” a “degrading” sex life from everything else and otherwise behaving completely differently—that implies an awfully bipolar way of engaging in relationships and sexual acts, and the assumption that all BDSMers manage their lives and relationships this way simply isn’t accurate. Not to mention, every conceivable BDSM act has a vast array of meanings.

Take spanking. For some—many, in fact—it’s degrading, absolutely, and therefore hot. For others it’s the fastest way to get to a really great endorphin rush based purely on the physical sensation. For others it brings blood flow to the genitals and is a great route to sexual arousal. For others it’s only fun if the spanking is done with a specific fetish object, and in that case it’s the object, not the spanking per se, that’s really working for them. For still others, it’s a reciprocal thing—I’ll whack you, you whack me—and a form of competition. For others it’s about discipline, and isn’t hot as far as the act itself goes, but is satisfying as a consented-to form of punishment within a D/s dynamic. And so on, and so forth.

Or take toe-sucking. For some it’s degrading (and therefore hot) to be forced to take such a dirty, low-down body part into the mouth. But for others it’s a fun sensual pleasure with no big psychological explanation. For still others it’s an honour to be allowed so close to such a customarily hidden part of the body, much like they’d be honoured to be invited to go down on a gal—an intimate, private act. For some it’s something they will do as an act of service to please someone who really likes it—and pleasing is their kink, with no attachment to any inherent degradation (i.e. they might take as much pleasure in balancing her chequebook or cooking her dinner), and much like many vanilla lovers really get off on pleasing each other (whaddaya know!). For some, toe-sucking is an act of (consensual) dominance, with the dominant getting their tongue in places that make the submissive uncomfortable, whether physically or psychologically or both, and enjoying making him/her squirm—works especially well with submissives who are ticklish or hate having their feet touched.

One of the big reasons BDSMers do so much darned negotiating is precisely because our sexual and kink desires span such a vast spectrum of meanings. It’s never safe for us to assume that a given act holds the same meaning for all of us. Thus, extremely intensive communication about those acts, and the potential for extremely deep intimacy as a result. (Read clinical sex therapist Peggy Kleinplatz’s essay “Learning from Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons from the Edge” in the Powerful Pleasures anthology if you’re curious about that.)

So back to the facials. With this whole argument, it sounds to me like Amanda is really invested in a paradigm in which facials (and piss, and BDSM as a whole) mean only one thing—and you can choose to enjoy that thing if you want, but you have no option to script different meanings on it. I’d agree with many commenters in saying it’s just not that simple.

I definitely agree that porn scripts one really specific set of meanings onto the act of a facial, and that porn has far-reaching effects on everyday heterosexual sex scripts. But it’s awfully depressing to think that she believes our only options for cultural scripts come from porn—hetero porn, no less—and that if we choose to refuse that model and explore other ones it’s both intellectually dishonest and, as she argues in the original post, necessarily oppressive to the next gal that comes along as it sets up men’s expectations that all women will go for it. (You could also argue that it’s the other way around—rather than shaping people’s desires, porn shows us what people already want to see, which is why people buy it—which in this case is even more depressing.)

Either way, seems to me that way of universalizing the meanings of sex acts went out of style when mainstream feminists stopped believing that all penetration is rape à la Andrea Dworkin, or that dildos were a tool of the patriarchy and made one “male-identified” (we hear the echoes of Adrienne Rich’s 1980s lesbian separatist wisdom there).

Universalizing logic about the meanings of sex acts is dangerous. Sure, it’s easy to say that when feminists do it, it’s okay, but in truth that same logic is used by people and governments all over the place to oppress people who engage in “non-normative” acts that, by their outside logic, cannot be interpreted in any way other than “bad.” This is the same logic that has teens thrown in jail for “sexting” because obviously that’s degrading and should be punished, even when the teens do it for their own fun and not in a way that exploits anyone else at all (for all that it is pretty unwise from a privacy standpoint, in my humble opinion). It’s the same logic that has gay men sitting in jail in England, right now, for the crime of assault—in some cases against themselves—for engaging in BDSM even though they vehemently argued they fully consented (the famous Spanner case).

In this case, Amanda is saying that she thinks both options, good and bad, are fine as long as honestly stated, so there’s no question of punishment—but that’s about the only difference here. There’s still a false binary being created, and the narrow and value-laden judgement of one option in that binary still remains.

5 Responses

  1. I knew I’d be interested in what you have to say about this. I’ll confess that I leaned towards agreeing with Amanda, at least about facials, when I read that post. Now having read yours, I think you’re right. Except about this passage:

    “I don’t disagree that people can bracket off their sex life and otherwise be good to each other—S&M types swear they do it all the time, and I believe them. But what’s great about them is they admit that the degradation is the point.”

    I attributed to this passage a much narrower meaning than you did, I think. I didn’t read it as saying that all BDSM is about degradation, but rather that it is common in BDSM for people to find things acceptable during sex that they would never put up with otherwise. That there are lots of people for whom power exchanges, the acceptability of striking each other, humiliation, whatever, ends when the scene is over, and that it doesn’t have to extend to the rest of their relationship.

    So what Amanda was saying there was that if we accept her premise that facials are degrading, that doesn’t mean we have to conclude that women who enjoy facials enjoy being degraded or are under some sort of patriarchal thumb in the rest of their lives (although it’s possible that that’s the case).

    Anyway, for all that I agree with you about the importance of allowing people to define their own meaning for sex acts, I don’t think Amanda’s entirely wrong. I think there are some acts, and facials is one of them, that have an enormous amount of cultural baggage attached, and that when you’re working in a context of straight, non-BDSM culture, where negotiation is minimal to null and critical thinking about sex is almost considered shameful, that cultural baggage can loom impressively large.

    It’s possible I’m not giving people enough credit, but I’m thinking back to my own experiences in that culture, and particularly to the men and women I knew, and I’m remembering a large number of men who watched the kind of porn we’re talking about, where sex in general was treated as a degrading thing for women to participate in, but facials, anal sex, piss play, etc. were especially so. And those men took those attitudes into their sex lives (and their non-sex lives, too, for that matter). Whether the attitudes came for porn or drove the desire for porn is not really relevant, IMO. The point is that in the cultural context that a lot of straight people, especially straight young people, inhabit, facials do have exactly the meaning Amanda describes, because *sex in general* is infected with this attitude of degradation of women. And a lot of women see that degradation as a fairly unavoidable part of having sex. And if that’s the case, then pulling that unspoken background out into the open and discussing it is really valuable.

    So, yes, I do think Amanda painted with too broad a brush, but I think there’s also maybe a clash of cultural assumptions going on here.

    Basically, context matters.

  2. Jake! Always a pleasure to read your comments here… :)

    I totally get what you’re saying about the general framing of sex as degrading to women in porn and in much of straight culture. I further agree that specific acts such as anal sex, piss play, etc. are seen as, or at least presented as, even more degrading, and that the facial is most certainly one of those. And as you said, if “a lot of women see that degradation as a fairly unavoidable part of having sex … then pulling that unspoken background out into the open and discussing it is really valuable.” Definitely.

    However… I think there are various ways we can approach this problem, some far more productive than others. Discussing this cultural baggage, challenging people to think about what exactly they’re getting up to in the bedroom and what it means, and perhaps more specifically what it means to both (or all) the people involved, especially when those meanings are unstated or divergent, is a very valuable thing to do. I think some streams of feminism have been really good at that, while others – like the one Amanda’s post seems to come from – have been way too heavy-handed and authoritarian, which ironically mimics the very patriarchal power structures feminism purports to stand against.

    I agree that context makes a huge difference, and on that point it’s interesting to note that even when commenters on Amanda’s post protest from a context that’s different from the one in which Amanda is operating, she holds fast to her view regardless of the many very articulate points made about its flaws. She responded to my own challenge, for example, by writing “how tedious!” and dismissing it entirely. So if she were actually considering context here, and recognizing the presence and value and meaning-making of sexual cultures that operate both intertwined with and independently from mainstream straight culture, her post might not have bugged me as much as it did.

    In short, I think it’s possible to challenge the grossness and misogyny that underlies much of straight porn and sexual culture without universalizing the meanings of acts or telling people what their experiences are as though being a straight feminist made one an expert on everyone else’s sex lives. There’s way too much entitlement and arrogance in that stance for me to be able to get behind it.

  3. I loved this post; the universalizing of the meaning of sex acts has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, and it’s something I’ve encountered among fellow perverts as well as feminists.

    FYI, there was a similar flareup a few weeks back on the topic of facials = porn = degrading over at the Bitch magazine blog: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/i-blame-porn-1

  4. Thank you for this post, it is useful in clarifying the the issue as you frame it, and in other ways as well – for instance the way it addresses the difference between a kind of “decriminalization” of behavirs vs. an acknowledgement that the meaning of behaviors lies in the minds/attitudes of the participants.

    My own gestateing thesis regarding such things is that abuse/degradation arises not in the act, but in a specific condition which may or not be present in the context for the act – the presence or absence of volition and the extent to which the the personal volition of participants is supported or negated in that context.

    My sense is that acts – including judgements about the extent to which an act is “degrading” – which deprive people of the opportunity for voluntary action, i.e. of volition – are worse than ostensibly degrading behaviors which are fully voluntary expressions of the capacity for volition by participants.

    The violation of volition, of the capacity for voluntary action by another through shaming, or through physical violence is the greater sin.

    Respect for volition, and the willingness to protect others volitional lives, is an arm of tolerance – and tolerance is essential to virtue.

  5. Hrm. I hadn’t read the comments thread at Pandagon before I posted here. If I had I probably wouldn’t have defended Amanda so vigorously, because there she clearly does cross the line from simply being overly general in her language to explicitly denying the stated experience of people.

    And yet, I still can’t condemn her completely.

    I (probably like her) have had plenty of experience with young, straight women who engage in these putatively degrading acts, who are incapable of having any kind of intelligent discussion about gender or power, who claim that the acts aren’t degrading, and whose boyfriends are complete misogynist douchebags, and trying to believe that they’ve rescripted these acts, well, it stretches credibility.

    Amanda’s failure to listen to her commenters and respect them as adult women who have actually thought about these things is unacceptable, but I think that failure stems from a long experience of watching young women in furious denial as they smilingly participate in their own oppression, and I can sympathise. Maybe I’m projecting, but if I were behaving like her (although I hope I wouldn’t), that would be my reason.

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