On matters of sex and feminism, you wouldn’t expect National Review‘s A.J. Delgado and The Nation‘s Katha Pollit to find much common ground. But their mutual hyperventilation over Duke University’s notorious frosh porn actress, Belle Knox, reminds us that in America, authoritarianism in sexual politics is bipartisan.
The sad truth is that both writers share an idealized, fairy-tale conception sex — though, of course, the details differ — along with a ruthless impulse to shame and stigmatize the men and women who deviate from their scripts.
In a jeremiad for the conservative site, Delgado whines that that liberals aren’t heaping enough shame on the unabashedly feminist and libertarian Knox. She was thrust into the collective consciousness when a fellow student at Duke ran across her work and decided to out her as a porn actress to the school, unleashing a torrent of harassment and intimidation. However, in the aftermath, Knox has refused to be shamed, and comes across as intelligent and unafraid in the many interviews she’s done and pieces she’s written since then.
“It turns out that, in the rock-paper-scissors game of liberalism, ‘not judging’ beats out ‘true female equality.'” But just what is “true female equality?” We never learn. Because Delgado isn’t interested in that. Instead, she wants to bemoan a new wave of feminism that seeks to embrace and broaden women’s diverse choices, where the old guard still sought to police them.
It irks Delgado that Belle Knox and Katy Perry dare walk around unashamed of their sexuality while calling themselves feminists. She condescends to pop star Perry, calling her “poor,” and “confused,” because she “parades around in dresses three sizes too small and she obsesses over boyfriends.”
While Delgado recoils in horror about a 27-year-old American medical student auctioning off her virginity, Pollit is upset about all sex work. She worries that it enables men to enjoy sex without “attracting a partner.” Of course, a john does attract a partner, with dollars — in which they’re hardly unique, even if uniquely explicit. Pollit is grossed out by the idea that a woman might have an interest in a penis separate from a personality — something I hear occasionally happens even without money changing hands.
“Maybe men would be better partners, in bed and out of it, if they couldn’t purchase that fantasy, if sex for them, as for women, meant finding someone who likes them enough to exchange pleasure for pleasure, intimacy for intimacy,” writes Pollit. Maybe Pollit is right, and sex work and porn are bad. It’s an interesting question to ponder, but ultimately a totally useless one. Because those who don’t live in a fantasy world realize that there will never be a time when men (and women) can’t view porn or purchase sex (or drugs, or guns) in one currency or another.
Delgado similarly yearns to see sex divorced from commerce. She sees porn as “a male-dominated nightmare that objectifies women and exploits even its willing participants.” Both insist that women behaving in ways that they would not must be “exploited” — as when Delgado declares that porn “exploits even its willing participants.” Like all paternalists, they condescendingly claim to restrict women’s choices for their own good — granting themselves the power to judge that good better than their presumptive wards.
It’s certainly understandable that sex work isn’t something Pollit or Delgado would choose – -and they’re entitled to wish it would go away. But the assumption that all sex work is exploitative — and all workers as exploited — ultimately serves as a rationalization for foisting that fantasy on others, an unseemly habit whatever your fetish. The easiest way to justify robbing someone of agency, after all, is to convince yourself they never had it in the first place.
Delgado and Pollit are welcome to their idealized — and, indeed, widely shared — views of what healthy sexual relationships ought to look like. But they’re wrong to attempt to use shame, stigma and even physical violence (by uniformed proxy, of course) to browbeat women into conforming to their sexual visions. Instead of looking aghast at women like Belle Knox and Katy Perry, Delgado, Pollit and their ilk would be better off listening to and learning from them. The most important lesson is this: Everyone is entitled to their sexual fantasies, but however mainstream your fetish, it’s always ugly to try to foist it on others.
This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.