I was not planning on writing any thing else about the New York Times’ coverage of Anthony Weiner, in part because I was assuming that Lady Grey had already gone as low as she could go, and also because I don’t really care about Anthony Weiner, but what can I say? I’m a slutbag for woman-shaming.
It’s actually somewhat pleasantly surprising that we’ve made it this far into the Weiner scandal without too, too much scorn being reaped upon woman-kind Usually a male politician behaving badly would morph instantaneously into a BLAMETHESLUT situation. But despite some predictable meanness about Sidney Leathers and patronizing wringing of the hands in Huma Abedin’s direction, for the most part the media has avoided judging women-in-general in favor of focusing on the apparently endlessly fascinating puzzle of Weiner’s schnitzel.
But the Grey Lady has predictably jumped in to fill the void, publishing “Weiner’s Women,” an Op-Ed piece by Susan Jacoby.
There is something missing from the endless moralizing and sophomoric jokes aimed at Anthony D. Weiner. That something is the role of women in a coarse and creepy Internet culture dedicated to the fulfillment of both male and female desires for virtual carnal knowledge.
People ask how Mr. Weiner’s wife, the soulfully beautiful and professionally accomplished Huma Abedin, can stay with him. My question is why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers.
While recognizing the benefits of safety, control, and consent provided by online interactions, Jacoby is troubled by the “fantasy” that “female thrill seekers” find in online sexual relationships:
But the “sex” that women engage in with often anonymous men on the Web has nothing to do with pride in one’s body or mind. Whatever women or men are getting out of sex via Twitter or YouTube, it is not recognition of their specialness as individuals…. Sex with strangers online amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content. Erotic play without context becomes just a form of one-on-one pornography.
For Jacoby, women’s embrace of online sexuality is a betrayal of the feminism her generation fought for:
As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad to imagine a vibrant young woman sitting alone at her computer and turning herself into a sex object for a man (or a dog) she does not know — even if she is also turning him into a sex object. Twentieth-century feminism always linked the social progress of women with an expanding sense of self-worth — in the sexual as well as intellectual and professional spheres. A willingness to engage in Internet sex with strangers, however, expresses not sexual empowerment but its opposite — a loneliness and low opinion of oneself that leads to the conclusion that any sexual contact is better than no contact at all…. This is not the sort of equality envisioned by feminism.
I don’t think Jacoby necessarily set out to write a shaming and anti-feminist essay. She asks a question that is certainly valid — Why do women engage in online sex? But instead of taking the bold step of posing that question to actual women, Jacoby skips the evidence gathering and jumps to her own conclusions.
And this is where my feminism and Jacoby’s feminism begin to diverge. Because my feminism demands that women be allowed to speak for themselves.
With only her imagination to depend on, Jacoby’s conclusions about these thrill-seeking women are as two-dimensional as the pornographic depictions of women she deplores. What is the difference, really, between the infinitely sad, vibrant young women yearning for Prince Charming but settling for a dick pic and the naked actress faking an orgasm on the screen? Neither is real. Neither is allowed to be fully human by the beholder. They’re both just projections of desire, be that desire sexual or diagnostic.
Sex is complicated. I’d defy Jacoby or anyone to come up with a time in our history when sex between men and women has not been fraught with issues of power, race, class, control, money, property, and more. You think a single lady getting off in a chat room is sad? What about Lydia Bennet forced into a marriage because she was 16 and horny? What about Bertha Mason locked in the closet because her husband couldn’t handle her sexuality (Jean Rhys version, what)? What about Tess of the fucking D’Urbervilles? That shit is so sad I had a nervous breakdown reading it in college and had to remove the book from my room so it wouldn’t haunt me in the middle of the night. Shall we go back another hundred years? Another thousand? Fictional or non, things aren’t going to get much cheerier.
The internet might change the mechanisms of communication, but what it hasn’t changed is the fact that women’s sexual autonomy will always be infringed upon in a patriarchal society. My feminism wants to dismantle that patriarchy. Jacoby’s feminism seems content to exist within it. The very idea of judging a woman as “infinitely sad” based on one potentially minor aspect of her life is a feature of that patriarchal worldview.
Weiner’s women? Fuck that shit. Women belong to themselves. What we do with men when we choose to do things with men is our own damn business, and there’s nothing sad about that.
— Julia Carrie Wong