The #MeToo movement represents a significant shift in the zeitgeist for women and for women’s sexuality. Despite much speculation that it would be short-lived, its prominence and dominance over the current culture conversation continues. As such, it is necessary to question the movement’s continuing political goals, and whether the outcomes actually have the desired effect.
We must talk about the sexual threat and violence omnipresent in the lives of women, but we also need to create spaces for discussions about pleasure
The silence broken by the victims of sexual assault and harassment was a powerful call to action for many women and men alike. However, to continue to center the conversation around women’s victimhood may trigger reactionary conservative policies which seek to control and protect, rather than empower women. This presents significant challenges as it requires a balanced approach; we must talk about the sexual threat and violence omnipresent in the lives of women, but it is also imperative that we create spaces for discussions about pleasure.
For many, it is strange to think about #MeToo through the lens of sexuality outside of sexual assault or harassment. This is due to the endurance of the patriarchal understanding that sex is something that is done to women, not an act in which they are also a participant. The fact that women’s sexuality is at the very core of the #MeToo discussion, makes the conversation politically difficult to manoeuvre.
To date, sexual assault has mainly been discussed in terms of the harmful effects it may have on other parts of women’s lives, such as jobs, or more broadly the ability to succeed in a male-dominated world. The conversation has steered away from talking about these issues purely in relation to sex, as this would necessitate a move away from traditional scripts, to one where women are active participants in sexual activity.
Carole Vance has proposed the Pleasure and Danger framework as an alternative way of exploring female sexuality. She suggests that for women, sex is not only a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency, but also one of danger, repression, and restriction. This tension is central to women’s lives and in discussions surrounding their sexuality. To focus only on pleasure risks ignoring the structures within which women live. In contrast, to focus only on the danger ignores women’s sexual agency and unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair.
Framing women as weak or damaged impacts the ways in which women are allowed to discuss their experiences
Sexual danger and fear also often influence the way in which women’s sexual experiences are presented in the media, resulting in a repetition of narratives of women as passive victims. By framing women as weak or damaged, it renews the legitimacy of patriarchally motivated discourses of control and protection. This in turn impacts the ways in which they are allowed to discuss their experiences, and consequently, circumscribes any attempts to create alternative or nuanced articulations of sexual experiences.
The #MeToo movement represents a major success for feminist forces that have long fought to platform female voices and experiences. The longer it lasts, the better for women all around the world. That said, the movement must be allowed to be complicated and flexible. Women need a space to break their silence about assault and harassment, without tacitly and unwittingly conscribing unhelpful retellings of myths about women’s sexuality.
Despite decades of work by the women’s movement to normalise female sexual pleasure, the topic still continues to be a taboo. To wait until all risk and danger is eradicated from sexuality is to give up on women having access to the sexual arena. By postponing conversations about pleasure we end up signaling fear, thus giving power away to the oppressor.
Shifting the focus to women’s sexual pleasure does not erase or negate the quest for social justice and equity, nor does it claim to be the answer to ending all oppression
However, shifting the focus to women’s sexual pleasure does not erase or negate the quest for social justice and equity, nor does it claim to be the answer to ending all oppression or weaken the critique of sexual danger. Discussions about sexual fulfillment, just like discussions about sexual harm, can be used to demand the creation of safer spaces, to demand new modes of relating across gender, where violation is not always already inscribed in the body.