Last month I wrote about the cultural effects of sexism in media, and soon afterward I watched what will forever be known as the most hyped-up movie of the decade: Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t read the book beyond the first couple chapters, but considering the debates about whether or not it was a creepy gross story, I wanted to see for myself through the film interpretation. Filled with the hope that it might encourage people to be comfortable with the beautiful differences in human sexuality, I went into the theatre with an open mind.
But I wasn’t the only one who felt let down in the end: the theatre erupted with sentiments of disappointment when the movie was over. I took some comfort by gleaning—through light eavesdropping—that other patrons had similar concerns about the portrayal of consent, violence and misogyny.
Shortly after the Fifty Shades release, the City of St. John’s put a moratorium on permits for adult massage parlours, which are apparently otherwise thriving. My head was spinning with all the interesting discussions people were having about consent, sexuality and the commodification of sex. Discussions are awesome, and awesomely revealing about contemporary sexual habits. Between the Internet and coffee shops, Freud would have felt some serious eavesdrop-envy if he’d known about them.
Meanwhile, as Anna Smith discussed in this informative guest column, the Government of Ontario is rolling out modifications to the Health and Physical Education Curriculum that will include teaching students about consent in sexual health. While many support these changes, there’s a loud opposition that comes from misunderstandings or ignorance about sexual well-being, with people calling sex education curricula “propaganda” and raising questions about age-appropriateness.
What about the real issues?
That’s not to say I don’t have any concerns about all this.
I have concerns about sexual well-being, propaganda and age-appropriateness, too — I am concerned that not enough people hold the necessity of enthusiastic consent near and dear when engaging in sexual activity with another person.
I am concerned that (most) pornography—especially the kind that is easy to access—exposes people to unhealthy practices and images. Not only is misogyny, racial degradation, violence, assault, and pedophilia portrayed — it’s fetishized.
Parents today didn’t grow up with the same degree of access to this stuff that their kids are growing up with; it can be tough monitoring a child’s Internet use, especially if the parent does not know what to look for. Because the brain is equipped with super cool response cycles to arousal and other pleasantries, addiction to pornography is not only possible, but comes with similar withdrawal symptoms that are commonly associated with drug addictions. Desensitization to such images actually physically alters brain chemistry and sexual expectations, making pornography consumption potentially dangerous to partners, too. Thankfully, just as it’s possible to “get clean” with drug addictions, someone with this type of addiction can recover too.
I am also concerned that from a young age, people (especially girls) are taught to approach their sexuality delicately, to call their genitals cutesy names, to feel shame and lack knowledge about their bodies — all of which sets the stage for additional confusion and lack of support around issues of consent. By contrast, boys are taught that a part of masculinity is overt sexual desire. I know this because almost every heterosexual male bachelor party I have heard of ends up at a strip club. Apparently there’s no better way to celebrate an event than drinking some light domestic draught with the bros while sitting in a semi-circle around a stage treating one another to lap dances.
Meanwhile, heterosexual Canadian women haven’t succeeded nearly as well in sustaining the male exotic dancer business. The lingering taboo of a woman paying a man to take off his clothes becomes obvious when compared with the size of the industry and demand that exists for female exotic dancers. So those interested in male exotic dancers best plan parties around the scattered few touring groups.
Furthermore, I am concerned that according to the law, consent is not considered possible in an employer-employee relationship, yet it is possible for adult massage parlours to employ women whose life circumstances (poverty, debt, precarious immigration status) may make them vulnerable to pressures to perform sexual acts for pay.
It’s vital we pay attention to the connection between sexuality and profit for these businesses, and how they influence our relationships with our own bodies and each other.
When so many female staff at a massage parlour are described as being in their early 20s (having entered the industry in their teens), I can’t help but wonder whether they’ve even had the chance to explore other ways to make money. The power dynamics are not that different from what’s considered illegal (your employer requesting sex) since consent is already out the window under those circumstances. Not to mention that there is no real on-the-job safety precautions that can be taken at these establishments. And, just as with street prostitution, women are beaten up and killed in this industry too.
I should note that I don’t advocate criminalizing sex workers. Instead, I think it’s important to address the cause of the huge market for adult massage parlours in a way that better serves the needs of the women working there, as well as the customers who feel they require these services. I realize that not everyone working at these parlours or in the sex trade should be assumed to be lacking choice or other life options. But the social research indicates that many do, on a scale we cannot ignore.
And yes, I have concerns about the marketing connection between pornography and bad erotica like Fifty Shades. Adult massage parlours know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to garnering interest in their products and services and turning a profit.
While many people may keep their sexual habits discreet, there’s no shortage of people looking to learn and experience more about their own sexual relationships and curiosities. That part is cool. I would shout it from the top of Signal Hill: “Please, everyone explore your own sexuality and understand your body and sexual relationships the best you possibly can!”
But when we tie together the popularity of pornography, Fifty Shades of Grey and adult massage parlours the common denominators are terrifying: violence, racism, lack of consent, misogyny and stigma. To work around these terrifying and negative-sounding realities, sexually exploitative products and services are marketed as being progressive, sex-positive, part of the path to sexual freedom from the shackles of an otherwise prudish world. They’re accompanied by quips about stress relief, human nature, not being able to change human nature, and permissive desire. You know what I mean — you’ve likely heard all these justifications, too.
Commodified sexuality — no coincidence
And yes, the positive side of these things all sounds amazing! It would be amazing, if it were true (and safe and healthy). The positive messages associated with pro-sexuality positions can be so strong, it’s easy to forget the money-making businesses that are behind them. It’s vital we pay attention to the connection between sexuality and profit for these businesses, and how they influence our relationships with our own bodies and each other. The bottom line is, if society continues to rely on things that toxify our sexual desires and interests, healthy sexual experiences will become endangered altogether.
It’s imperative we collectively understand that anything which violates the consent of another person is toxic. Making conscientious choices about exploring our sexuality is equally important, and this includes recognition that the buying into various forms of commodifying sex is not the same as sexual liberation. Aside from the (I cannot stress this enough) essentiality of consent, there is no exact formula or method for how to go about pursuing healthy and positive sexual relationships, because everyone will want different things. Which is awesome.
There’s a multitude of information out there about healthy sexual relationships (with ourselves and others) that can help us make informed choices. A life of gratifying, healthy sex means putting some thought into—and occasionally re-examining—the things that inspire sexual desire, because we’ve all been bombarded with quite a lot of crap. Having consideration for those who may be affected by your sexual preferences (directly or indirectly) is key.
Finally, making schools and homes supportive spaces for children to learn about all of these things in a healthy way is possible, but only if the adults can commit to meeting the challenge this will involve.