When I think of all the choices I have ever made (and I’ve made some very questionable ones), nothing has ever made reconsider them them more than the recent Gawker story concerning Violentacrez and the insidious, often exploitative nature of the Internet.
Let me be clear. Given my experience of, you know, existing as a woman here on earth, I’ve never been under any other impression about the fact that women, their bodies, experiences, and sexuality are always and constantly up for grabs, and usually, not by us. Our sexual existence gets swallowed up, appropriated, and spat back out in a twisted version of some bullshit fantasy cum shame prose cum evolutionary psychology – oxytocin attachment-slut shaming bullshit. I myself have even had a few sips of this Kool-Aid. Add this to the logic of many of the Reddit users who, like Violentacrez, believe that having a female body in public is enough to damn you to a vicious consumption, whether consensual or not. In most of these cases, it’s the usually not. Kira Cochrane, who recently penned the piece, Creepshots and revenge porn: how paparazzi culture affects women, writes, “What unites creepshots, the Middleton photographs, the revenge porn websites, is that they all feature the same fetishisation of non-consensual sexual activity with women who either you don’t have any access to, or have been denied future access to. And it’s really this product of rage and entitlement.” It only hammers home the point that having a female-identified body in the culture we live in means that technically, by these laws, your body is not your own. Existing guarantees hardship. Talking about it guarantees more.
But as someone who has slowly but surely put more of their self into the public world – whether talking about sex or performing about sex, I can’t say that my stomach didn’t drop considerably over the idea of images of women, whether consensual or not, up for grabs on the Internet, hanging around in jpeg files, waiting to be unleashed in a world that is unrepentant and unforgiving of any independent display of sexuality. My stomach sinks for the first time thinking about all the photos I’ve ever taken, and more importantly, all the photos I’ve ever had taken, while casually hanging out in a thong and pasties. It was an internalized shame that I haven’t felt since a whole sexual assault ago. Where was this sick feeling coming from?
I’ve had guys come up for a photo, which is fine. But sometimes, these guys want 3, 5, no 15 more photos, and each time, a hand moves where I don’t want it to, they get a little closer, and someone screams, “Show me your tits!” I become a person not posing for a photo, but a thing studied and documented, groped and grabbed. I’ve had moments when men have started taking photos of me and ended up trying to take them of my crotch or attempting angles that would somehow unearth other strategically covered places. I’ve had moments when I’ve shoved guys off me for grabbing me on my breasts the second before the camera goes off, guys trailing me, demanding another photo, crying, “Why are you being an uppity bitch. I just want another photo of you.” It’s a behavior that only cements the entitlement of creep shots and the exploitation of young, underage women like Amanda Todd and Amber Cole. Add to this racialized differences and how these cases are covered by media outlets, and you recognize even more damaging stereotypes about visible sexuality in young women and who gets to be a victim and who gets to be gossip fodder, the girl with the branded scarlet A. Everything is fair game, it seems.
So that sickly feeling? It’s the same sickly feeling I get when I have some dude saunter over to me, with a shit-eating grin on his face, and the first words to me are, “Oh, so you’re the stripper.” Let me be clear: I’m not mad you think / know / assume / found out / are trying to insult me or whatever. I know who my foremothers are, and frankly, I think making a dig at me in that way is enough of a compliment to reward myself by buying a new pair of shoes. No, when someone poses that question, or really, the statement, it’s the way that something like that is said, the under-text of what it actually means – and I know exactly the way you mean it. I know what you are implying by the way you look at me or my peers, the way you say it to me, and the way you use your body to exert yourself over me, as if I was to be simultaneously intimidated, shamed, and charmed. The way the hate and superiority rolls off the tongue. It’s not about sex. It’s about a person thinking they have found the absolute worst thing to use against you: your sexuality, remixed. Watch some people throw the word “stripper” around or how they react around half-naked women doing entertaining things for pleasure or money and you will watch a social exercise in how much work we actually need to do to undo the way people perceive women’s sexual lives.
By the way, gentlemen who do that, I can spot you a mile away and please be aware I will have no mercy.
But it always comes back to this: sexual behavior, especially if it has gone public, is a marker, an indicator, and above all, a cemented free pass for everyone around you to righteously judge and shame. It must be policed, it must be judged, it must be used to make examples, not to accept lived realities. The logic moves as follows: if you are a woman just out in the world, you should expect photos you did not consent to ending up on a thread called “Creepshots: upskirts and little sluts.” If you are a woman of color, you are fetishized, a complex person whose sexuality that has been packaged and advertised as hyper or submissive, but always ready to serve someone’s narrow world view. If you are fourteen and taking photos of yourself, then you should have known better, you should have expected in your teenage mind that you would and should be demonized across grown adults twitters feeds and blogs. If you do not meet the quota of what normalized views of “attractive” are, then your body is subjected to a different type of sexualized shame, one that usually combines a demand that you at once hate yourself, and be grateful for the often degrading attention you receive. If you are a woman who takes her clothes off for money, value, or fun, then you are everything that everyone hates because you are breaking the rules and need, no should,and deserve, to be punished. In every aspect.
By the nature of rape culture, I am indeed, asking for it.
Which brings me to the presumption I would love to finally destroy: the nature of when you are asking for it. The idea that there is even a choice to me is null and void, because in the current world that we live in, it seems like we are just always asking for it, right? One of the first questions I always get when I tell people what I do is, “Don’t you get harassed?”And the answer is yes, but not nearly as often as I am harassed when I am fully clothed and minding my own business. The entitlement works the same, it just changes by the context. But is there a difference in intention between the man on the street who follows you and yells at you and the guy who demands you take one more photo? Is there a difference between the man who, after you rebuff his advances, calls you a whore, a slut and an uppity bitch and the man who walks straight up to you and expects his dick to get sucked because you happen to be wearing a bedazzled thong? Is there a difference between a man who thinks that one type of woman should be respected and another type should not, if that difference comes by the idea of what he considers is acceptable sexual behavior for women?
Realistically, I am a woman who is taking my clothes off on a stage and I know the novelty and subversiveness of that in this current cultural period. That’s why I do it. Do you know how freeing that can be? The joy that can be experienced? Plus, it’s not always the photos themselves that I find myself waking up at three in the morning worrying about. It’s the idea of what those photos can mean outside the context of the realm I inhabit – how it puts me at risk for future endeavors. I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of me doesn’t live in a risk-management scenario, one where the worst-case scenarios always comes forward and inspires anxiety attacks. The what if’s and maybe’s regarding the future are bad enough without the fear of wondering if they will not understand or accept this. Will or will they not think I am capable of having a job? Will or will they not prove themselves to be beyond a certain way of trained thought that instantly compartmentalizes the behavior of women?
And why don’t we live in that world yet? I ask myself consistently why we do not live in a world where women can talk about sex openly, be sexual beings and still be viewed as whole, complete people and not live in fear of losing your job like Tiffany Webb, run fleeing from what you enjoyed like Rebecca Watson, be marginalized for professionalizing it, or carry the burden of being vilified by adults at thirteen or fourteen. Is there a world where you don’t have to expect to end up on forum chains like Chokeabitch, Rapebait, and Jailbait ? What will it take to get to that world where women can talk openly and without judgement about sex, whether it’s pleasure, pain, commodification, violence, transaction, or imposed distance?
It is an emotional labor that can be taxing, to live with the idea that your body, however you present it, will at some point be consumed beyond your control. I like to remind myself that at the end of the day, the joy will always hopefully outweigh the things that are set to destroy the hearts and minds of women. These are the things that remind me that yes, we do live in a culture that demands women live up to a certain role and when you finally do or don’t, you will be punished either way. Which way do you want to be punished? For doing what your heart desires? Or for doing what you thought would keep you safe and didn’t? Did you even have a choice to begin with?
Did any of us ever have a choice?