Feminism and the Lifestyle

Is the Lifestyle inherently anti-feminist? Is it, conversely, a bastion of feminism?

Feminism is defined formally in the Oxford English Dictionary as “advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; [and] the movement associated with this.”

But the word feminist carries a lot of baggage, partially because feminism as a movement has done the same thing every movement seems to do — it has splintered into different cells. So much so that Wikipedia lists no fewer than 20 variations on the theme, and has likely missed some. Of these, there are those truer to the original intent and ideology than others. Some wander way way off track, yet insist on referencing themselves as part of the parent movement nonetheless. So you have women and men walking about and, perhaps more importantly — spewing all over social media — who call themselves feminist but may support and espouse all sorts of whacky ideas about what that means.

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No. Not that kind of baggage. [photo | Amos Bar-Zeev]
So feminism can get a real bad rap. Feminists are man-haters. Feminists are frustrated lesbians. Feminists just can’t get (and desperately need) a man. Feminists think there are (or should be) no differences at all between the sexes. Feminists don’t wear bras. Feminist? You mean Feminazi!

Where it gets really confusing and, to be honest, more than a little beleaguering, is when feminists circle the wagons and shoot inward at other feminists in regard to who does or does not ‘qualify.’

You can’t be a feminist if you occupy a typically female role in marriage or the workplace. You aren’t feminist if you like to look conventionally feminine or do “girly” things. If you’re male, you can’t be a feminist. Dear lord, woman! You enjoy being submissive during sex some or all of the time? We hereby revoke your Feminist Card. Men, if you like to look at women’s bodies or be dominant during sex some or all of the time, you super duper don’t get to be a feminist.

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We got a kick out of this Thought Catalog field guide to feminists[photo | Sharon McCutcheon]
The idea for this post was born out of me grappling with my own ideals about what it means to be feminist and my new involvement with the non-monogamy lifestyle. I’m going to be straight up here and tell you that since entering the world of the LS, I have read, heard, and seen some things that make the feminist in me absolutely recoil — things that seem more regressive than progressive with regard to women.

This post was born out of me grappling with my own ideals about what it means to be feminist and my new involvement with the non-monogamy lifestyle.

Some of these things, I have come to realize, aren’t necessarily regressive. They just aren’t my sexual cup of tea. I’ll never be a particularly accomplished or dedicated submissive. Don’t try ordering me to “take that cock.” I’m likely to take it Lorena Bobbitt style. You won’t get me to call you ‘daddy,’ and if you call me things like “dirty,” “bitch,” “whore,” or “cum-guzzling gutter slut” in the heat of the moment, be prepared to get punched in the dick — and not in a real sexy BDSM way, either. Coming on my face, as you can surmise, is 100% off the table.

If I’m honest, I admit that the feminist in me struggles with the fact that there are women who do enjoy these things sexually, but I’m smart enough and open-minded enough to understand that fantasy and sex play are not necessarily indicative of anything more than just that. (It helps that I have read Justin Lehmiller’s book Tell Me What You Want.) I’m also smart enough and open-minded enough to realize there are plenty of men who enjoy being subjugated, degraded, shamed and/or humiliated as part of sex play — meaning that these proclivities can’t be interpreted as somehow inherently anti-woman. Bottom line: It doesn’t make you anti-feminist to enjoy being submissive some or all of the time.

It doesn’t make you anti-feminist to enjoy being submissive some or all of the time.

There are, however, some subtle cultural things that rankle the feminist in me.

Some are quite minor, but irksome. For example, I dislike it when women are referred to as “girls,” as in the popular Girls Uncorked events. It’s not an egregious transgression, but it does bother me that we’re a lot less likely to see men referenced in the LS (or anywhere) as ‘boys’ in comparable ways — outside of the gay community, anyway. To label women “girls” in this way diminishes them.

Note: This is not the same as using it in a playful sense. I’m cool with hearing, “Girl, let me tell you….” or “I’m going out for the night with my girls!” Colloquial use is one thing. It’s when grown women are branded ‘girls’ more formally (or when professional women are referred to as ‘girls’ in the workplace) that I get twitchy.

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Not a “girl.” [photo | Yuliya Kosolapova]
More significant things that concern me have to do with how usual or typical lifestyle goings-on are portrayed in books, articles, and podcasts or on social media.

In the reading and listening I have done since entering the Lifestyle, I have run across lots of people expressing it as the man’s role to seek out and vet couples or singles with whom to play. In our relationship, I am the one who posts our profiles online, answers inquiries, and negotiates with the other couple or single. The expectation that the man is necessarily the hunter and the woman the hunted weirds me out. I don’t mind if that’s what another couple does, but I don’t like it when I read/hear man-as-hunter portrayed as the expected or ‘correct’ way to go about things.

I do not want a chivalrous spouse to protect me, and I hope the LS doesn’t judge me for that.

Concerning vetting  single men for MFM play, I hear often about the male half of a couple being the one to meet and negotiate with the prospective single guy, sans the female half. There seems to be a notion that the man must not only establish his own level of comfort with the person who will be sharing his partner but — more problematically — that he must somehow look out for the woman. I do not want a chivalrous spouse as a go-between to protect me, and I hope the LS doesn’t judge me for that. Once again, I’m fine with other couples sending the gentlemen to negotiate first, but I become concerned when that’s portrayed as the expected way of doing things (as it is in Daniel Stern’s book Swingland).

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Stahp. Seriously. I promise I’m not that dainty.

I’d like for podcasters and writers to be mindful of the variety of people and relationships in the Lifestyle and consciously avoid perpetuating notions that there is one right, best, or ‘normal’ way to approach things — the male partner taking the lead and shielding the female partner. Maybe that is common, but it shouldn’t be promoted as necessary or best.

And then there’s all of the skimpy lingerie, photo sharing, and the popularity of boudoir photography in the Lifestyle. What of that? Is that anti-feminist?

Recently, a friend of a friend posted a collection of art on Facebook, some of which were in the style of 1940s pinup art. The friend was sharing because the body of work was impressive. What got to me were the comments from other friends, immediately condemning both the artist and the post-er for, respectively, creating and enjoying artworks that “objectify women’s bodies for the male gaze.”

Wait. What?! Insert minor existential crisis here.

I’m not male, and I’m enjoying the view, too. Does my female gaze not count? If I like photos and art that depict the female form in sexualized ways, does that mean I can’t be a feminist anymore? I have had photos taken of myself in sexualized ways that I love — some of which I share online. Sometimes being sexually objectified feels…you know…sexual. Does that make me a traitor to the cause?

So that happened in my head for like a nanosecond before I went, “What the actual fuck?!” No. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

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We quote this Esurance commercial entirely too often.

Reading Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity helped me reconcile my gut belief that simply enjoying looking at the female body or having my female body looked at does not make me anti-feminist or, really, anything other than a normal sexual human being. Perel  writes about the  importance of establishing distance — sometimes through objectification — as a means of kindling sexual desire. That makes so much sense.

Portraying women nude or in lingerie or in seductive poses does in fact sexually objectify them. But that doesn’t make the practice inherently misogynistic or anti-feminist.

And then there’s just the recognition of this: Human beings are visual creatures. We like to take things in through all of our senses, but we tend to eat, drink, love, and fuck with our eyes first. Yep, portraying women nude or in lingerie or in seductive poses does in fact sexually objectify them. Not even gonna say it doesn’t. But that doesn’t make the practice inherently misogynistic or anti-feminist. And enjoying looking at those photos doesn’t either. I would worry maybe if that was the only way a person could see or enjoy a woman, but I’m not at all concerned that portraying someone in a sexy way gets interpreted as sexy. There’s nothing wrong with sexy.

There are those who may argue that the Lifestyle is uber-feminist because women get to be sexual within this culture in ways that they are typically discouraged from in other segments of society. I think there’s a good amount of truth to that. The lifestyle is sex positive by nature and therefore allows women a great deal of freedom to claim their sexuality, ask for what they want, and get it — without judgment.

The lifestyle is sex positive by nature and therefore allows women a great deal of freedom to claim their sexuality, ask for what they want, and get it — without judgment.

On the other hand, even a cursory perusal of LS dating profiles and LS clubs/parties reveals that women in the LS are, by-and-large, encouraged to look stereotypically feminine. Women in the LS are quick to laser or wax themselves hair-free, there’s no shortage of us who have had body-enhancing surgical procedures, and outfits are not necessarily selected for comfort (stilettos, corsets, and skin-tight ‘body-con’ garments abound). We say we are open minded toward all body types, ages, and styles — but anyone honest will admit that there’s a certain type of female aesthetic that proliferates within the Lifestyle.

I don’t think that makes the LS anti-feminist. We are choosing to look and dress the way we do, and enjoying ourselves doing it. Women I know feel empowered by it, not diminished.

Which leads me to my ultimate conclusion: I don’t believe the LS is any more or less feminist than the greater society it inhabits. Like all subcultures, we are to a large degree a microcosm of the parent culture. Can someone be anti-feminist within the LS? Absolutely. Can someone be feminist within the LS? Sure.

Is the Lifestyle itself inherently feminist or anti-feminist? Nope.


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One thought on “Feminism and the Lifestyle

  1. Artfully argued, but perhaps because we agree with what you said. We have our ideals of beauty, which do correspond to cultural norms, but fortunately for us, they align. But they don’t just apply to women. For us, we want the male to be “all that” as well.

    We approach the LS the same way we approach everything else, in partnership. I may defer to her judgment. She may defer to mine. But neither of us has ever been mistaken for submissive to each other, or anyone else. We just adapt to each other’s strengths and defend each other’s blind spots.

    Is the LS feminist? We’d say on balance, as we experience it, it is the most female empowering (therefore balanced) subculture we know. But we can see how others may choose to live it differently. It’s mostly what we make of it.

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