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Rape Culture:
Renegotiating Sexual Subjectivity on Porn Sites for Women
Caroline Godart

January 2007

Pay websites designed specifically by and for hetero/bisexual women are very few, very similar, and very conventional; likewise, free sites contain comparable material, only much worse, featuring amateur pictures of naked men, sometimes of naked men and dressed women, naked couples performing conventional lovemaking, and bachelorette parties (i.e. women dancing with male strippers).

The conspicuous absence of less boring porn for women on the internet, the ultimate modern medium, led me to research in greater depth what is actually available. When googling “porn for women,” I found many entries, but systematically ended up running into these pages: www.womensporno.com, www.justfortheladies.com, www.sssh.com, www.forthegirls.com, as well as a site called www.femalepov.com that was conspicuously designed by men. Many websites (mainly blogs) are devoted to written pornography for women, but this work aims at concentrating on visual material.

I have striven to locate and analyze easily available porn made by women for women. I have logically chosen to focus on Internet sources, and when it came to choosing the website on which I was going to concentrate, I simply picked the first one to appear when I googled “porn for women:” www.sssh.com. Since its free preview tour is very representative of that of the other sites mentioned above, it is likely that their contents are similar too; the tours typically feature pictures of naked couples in suggestive positions, naked men, and men masturbating. They also list the different materials present on the website, such as erotic stories, hard-core videos, humor and advice sections, and erotic horoscopes.

This paper analyzes the content of sssh.com from a third-wave feminist perspective that both acknowledges the existence of rape culture and the necessity for women to reclaim the sexual realm. Sssh.com, although it does open some space for sexual experimentation, is ultimately constricting and normative because, as a discursive entity, it does not acknowledge the existence and the consequences of rape culture, and thereby participates in its reinforcement. This is all the more worrying since, because it is a Web medium, its influence on subjective formation is far-reaching, for sites engulf their users in a matrix that requires their entire attention, both mental and physical.

After paying for the subscription on sssh.com, a welcoming page opens with the following text:

Mystique. Sex. Fantasy. Love. All are intricately woven into the feminine psyche. Surrounded by an aura of mystery, women’s sexuality has long been taboo. Passions run deep, volcanic hot, sizzling intensity... We know what women want, we know about the whispers calling your name, invoking desires. Come, awaken the lover burning within.... no more secrets...Welcome! (emphasis added)

The dominant colors are light blue and pink and the text is italicized, conferring an aura of non-aggressiveness and femininity to the website, probably aimed at relieving the female customer of any feelings of guilt at watching porn. The designers have deliberately chosen graphic features that stand in sharp contrast with ones usually associated with unbridled sexual fantasies. These design aspects are in tune with the tone of the text, the goal of which is to remind women that although their sexuality is “taboo,” it is part and parcel of their lives, “woven” as it is “in the feminine psyche.”

After clicking on « Enter, » the member is brought to the main menu, organized into different parts: on the top of the page, the sections « Advice Goddess,’ ‘Your Corner,’ ‘The Boudoir,’ ‘Beauty and Fashion,’ and ‘Sssh Connection’ offer, among other things, sex trivia, advice, tarot and horoscopes, beauty tips, and letters from customers. The member finds the actual porn material on the middle of the page, arranged according to various fantasies: naked men, couples, lesbian (described as “bi-curious”) and women masturbating. Each of these sections includes erotic stories, movies, and picture galleries, rated according to their level of intensity: one pair of lips means that the material is “Naughty; Some Nudity and Mild Sexual Situations,” two pairs that it is “Naughtier; Full Nudity and Sexual Situations,” and three pairs, the maximum, imply that what is shown is “Very Naughty; Very Explicit! XXX.” All of these sections also feature a preliminary text that, again, explicitly aims at removing the member’s potentially guilty feelings. For instance, the section featuring lesbian sex reassures the viewer about the ‘normality' of her sexuality with a rather awkard quote from Florence Nightingale on her experiences with women[1], followed by this introduction: Josephine Baker, Drew Barrymore, Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Margaret Mead, and Eleanor Roosevelt. What do all these women have in common? It is said that they are all bi-sexual. Surprised? Have you ever fantasied about being intimate with another woman? What would you do if you had the opportunity to explore your fantasy? Could you go through with it? At one point or another many straight people have same sex fantasies, sometimes they stay just that, fantasies. Other times, it's something you may want to explore, either on your own or with your partner. Here at Sssh, we would like to help you explore all your fantasies. Of course what you do with it is up to you! After all, who knows your body better than another woman?

In the same vein, the introduction to porn movies reads, “Adult movies are a wonderful way to heat things up between you and your partner. Watching movies together can be very erotic! and helpful in giving you new ideas to incorporate into your own lovemaking repertoire.”

The website purports to be empowering, offering new sexual horizons to women, while striving to convince them that it is legitimate and “natural” for them to have not only fantasies, but also fantasies that do not only involve conventional heterosexuality. The measure of how far ‘normal’ women can go in their exploration is given at the bottom of the page, in the section where the website offers to introduce its members to what it refers to as “The World of Kink,” that is, fetishism and bondage. It contains the usual picture galleries, movies, and stories, as well as the “Sssh Friend Finder,” which gives the opportunity to “find other like-minded people with specific sexual tastes and lifestyles.” This section also presents two extensive introductions to bondage and fetishism, explaining at length that S/M is fun, safe, and the sign of a healthy relationship based on trust, and that a fetish is “whatever turns you on and heats you up,” from legs to leather and from corsets to long hair.

By giving women access to more “unconventional” sex, what Gayle Rubin calls “low status” sex (11), like masturbation, bisexuality, or S/M, sssh.com’s explicit goal is the sexual empowerment of women in an open and guiltless environment. Twenty years after the peak of the anti-pornography movement that has raged in the U.S. since the 1970s, it is interesting to see a porn site dedicated to women that features some S/M (with dominant/submissive men and women). The anti-porn movement, led by such figures as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, has directed much of its gall precisely at S/M images and movies, accusing them not only of presenting a dehumanized view of sexuality, but also of trivializing the humiliation and torture of women. Yet they have conveniently omitted to mention the fact that much S/M, both lesbian and heterosexual, features dominant women taking advantage of submissive men and/or women (Soble 33). Such critics' literalist interpretations have led them unequivocally to assume that pornography is causally linked to real-life violence against women: “pornography is the theory and rape is the practice” (Ellen Willis qtd. in Gubar 714), goes their well-known slogan, because, as MacKinnon puts it, “sooner or later, in one way or another, the consumer wants to live out the pornography further in three dimensions” (MacKinnon 19). Pornography, seen as the epitome of women’s sexual oppression, is supposed to “infect the rest of society” (Rubin 28), making sexism and violence against women ubiquitous.

This type of intellectual stance is, as Michel Foucault might argue, typical of our era, for it seeks to find in sex an explanation for everything. Although anti-porn intellectuals have rightfully pointed to and analyzed rape culture, they have also recreated a very conservative and normative sexual morality, which naturalizes certain (in fact very few) sexual behaviors, while deliberately categorizing others as abnormal.

This aspect of their thought has been criticized by “pro-sex” feminists, and most famously by Gayle Rubin, who argues that feminism is not an adequate tool for an analysis of sexuality, just as Marxism is not suited to the study of gender relations (35). Rubin and others have supported the view that women’s sexual liberation, which should include, for instance, the possibility of playing with patriarchy and sexism by endorsing standardized gender roles in sexuality, is at odds with a feminist political discourse that would aspire to control and regulate sexuality.

Therefore, another problem with the stringent ideology of the anti-porn movement is that it completely disregards the fact that to a lot of women, porn simply is exciting; in spite of everything, women are consumers of pornography. Of course it is possible, as many anti-porn activists have done, to denounce these women’s sexual fantasies as phallocratic, making them the absolute and unconscious victims of an alienating order. Still, I would argue that this stance is too dehumanizing itself to be taken seriously, since it implies that women have absolutely no agency over their sexuality. In contrast, Ellen Willis’s analysis seems more fruitful:

women have learned, as a matter of survival, to be adept at shaping male fantasies to their own purposes…a woman who enjoys pornography (even if that means enjoying a rape fantasy) is in a sense a rebel, insisting on an aspect of her sexuality that has been defined as a male preserve (qtd. in Ross 190).]

How does contemporary pornography for women stand amidst these heated debates? First of all, it should be noted that the outrage of sex-negative feminists was mostly grounded in the assumption that porn led to rape. Logically, the porn debates have centered exclusively on porn for men: since we live in a phallogocentric society, activists and theoreticians have focused on the dangerous potential connection between rape and porn only in respect of the implied male viewer. Porn for women has been completely disregarded because only a small minority of rapes are committed by women, and, mostly, because the main enemy targeted by the anti-porn movement has been patriarchy itself –and thus the pornographic materials that seem to cater to its needs. Yet, since porn sites for women are porn sites, functioning in a sexual discourse forged within phallogocentrism, it is important to ask whether they can be said to participate in the oppression of women and a reinforcement of rape culture.

First, though, it is crucial to elaborate on the problems raised by a second issue: Do porn sites for women completely do away with the conclusions of anti-porn theoreticians, or do they prohibit fantasies that involve depicting women in a submissive, “humiliating” position? Drawing on the pictures and movies featured on sssh.com, it seems that the website tries to find a sometimes uncomfortable compromise between these two antithetical stances. Unlike anti-porn activists, the site designers acknowledge the fact that “sex… is essentially objectifying” (Soble 67): the website is unapologetically pornographic, and pictures bodies as sexual objects the sole raison d’etre of which is to excite sexual desire in the viewer. The S/M section thumbs its nose at sex-negative feminists, and presents both men and women in submissive or dominant roles. Women and men are tied up, whipped, and endowed with fetishes like high heels or latex corsets and bras; in short, the regular apparatus displayed on average S/M porn sites is well-represented.

Still, it is hard to repress the feeling that, on the website, S/M does not completely belong to what is considered to be a normal sexuality, and in this sense, it is closely akin to the anti-porn morality. This conservative viewpoint is implied in the very title of the section, “The World of Kink,” which quite simply places S/M in a different universe. It is reinforced by the actors’ suspiciously bad performances in the S/M scenes: not only do they not look "turned on," but it seems that they do not even try to give that impression. This artificiality, which is not as blatant in other sections of the site, leads to the conclusion that S/M may be fun, but that it remains strange; it is acceptable in order to “spice up” a dull sex life, but should not constitute its basis.

Moreover, although the site purports to connect women with their wildest desires, the limits put on their expression are significant, as the images remain relatively soft, even the extra naughty, three-lip rated ones. For instance, bondage and penetration (except with a dildo) seem to be mutually exclusive activities: a woman is either tied up or penetrated, but the two never happen simultaneously. In only one picture gallery does a woman suffer (symbolic) physical pain: she is lying naked on a bench, unbound but with her eyes covered, while a naked man “flogs” her. But his efforts are so lax that it seems that he is dusting her back, rather than inflicting any sort of physical torture. The text that accompanies this series of pictures, instead of being the usual short erotic narrative, is a sort of instruction manual to spanking. We learn, for instance, that “good, erotic spanking is an art form,” and that “banging off too enthusiastically will almost always lead to quick disillusion.”

Another of the picture galleries, entitled “Why is bondage fun?” displays similarly educational content, explaining why the badly shot amateur pictures of a hooded, fat, naked man clinically inserting a dildo into a bound woman’s vagina can be irresistibly exciting. I obviously do not intend to deride the sexual act itself; rather, I want to point to the fact that this is actually the only series offering more realistic, less polished material, more credible actors, and what seems to be real physical pain. And it is interesting to note that precisely this series distinguishes itself by its cheap appearance, an outstanding feature in a resolutely middlebrow website. The contrast between the undeniably poor quality of the pictures and the enthusiastic tone of the text leads me once again to think that the designers of sssh.com do not really think of S/M as a legitimate form of sexuality that deserves to be treated with the same standards of quality, as, for instance, traditional heterosexual intercourse.

But even more disturbing than what is featured on the website is in fact what is not there. For instance, there are no images or texts featuring anal sex, although this is a fairly common practice. Moreover, one could imagine scenes evoking orgies, sex with obese people, transsexuals, or women with huge or, alternatively, very small breasts, to mention but a few examples of the usual material found on porn sites whose implied audience is male. One could even dream of a porn site for women that would feature elements that cannot be found on a male site. Regrettably, such hope is forsaken. Most importantly, the website does not provide any material explicitly designed to feed rape fantasies. This feature is particularly striking, for these form a favorite masturbatory scenario for a lot of women. How could it be otherwise in a culture that has made the fear of rape a permanent one in women’s minds, thereby forging a female sexual subjectivity at least partially grounded in violence?[2] But female sexuality, as it is shown and understood on sssh.com –once again, a site that purports to “know what women want”– is sweet, pink and blue, polished, glossy and middle-class. This raises some interesting questions, particularly in relation to the type of subjectivity that is called forth by the website.

It has become a truism to state that subjectivity does not originate from within, but is the result of external forces. Marxist and Neo-Marxist theory[3] has shown that ideology, and in particular its most efficient agent, popular culture, has the power of creating desires and needs, of rendering given ideas commonsensical, and of shaping and policing behaviors. The very form of sssh.com makes this subjective interpellation even more effective, for online surfing gives the viewer the impression that she is in control of the content. First, the website offers the possibility of engaging actively with it, in fact of participating in the creation of its textual content, through its interactive sections. The forum features a few conversations that tend to echo the general content of the website. The most successful of them in terms of the responses that it triggered investigates the topic of “I can’t be the only one who loves sex,” a rather unwittingly ironic one on a porn site. The responses, as can be expected, wholeheartedly agree with the first post, asserting the position that sex is wonderful and that women should feel free to experiment with their sexuality –for instance, by watching porn. The site also offers the possibility of submitting photographs, poems or erotic short stories, as long as they do not depict any “sexual activity involving bestiality (you can write stories about supernatural beasts like ghosts, unicorns, werewolves, etc.) or underage persons.” None of those posted on the website depart in any way from its general position on female sexuality, which may either point to a self-policing (or lack of imagination) of the site users, or to a censoring on the part of the administrators.

Secondly, by clicking on items that she selects herself, the sssh member goes on a self-designed journey through a medium that offers her different possibilities at any moment. For instance, she can choose, on the opening page of sssh.com, to visit the masturbation section (“All About You”), then click on the introductory text, see a picture of a clitoris, go back one step, see pictures of a woman masturbating, enlarge one of them, etc. The possibilities are virtually endless.

The web user’s ability to click her way through the site and its interactive features gives the impression that it actually responds to her inner desire. In this respect, Steven Shaviro explains that the Internet creates what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called a “haptic space” (Shaviro 7), one that, contrary for example to cinema, completely draws its user into it. It is not simply visual for Shaviro, but rather absorbs the entire body into its infinite stream of possibilities:

The World Wide Web offers possibilities so vast, and yet so tantalizingly incomplete, that I must get involved with it in depth. I am drawn in it, I can’t help myself… the Net solicits my entire body. Web surfing is a tactile, physical experience... I must remain much closer to the screen than ever is the case with TV… Meanwhile my fingers are running across the keyboard. My right hand keeps busy moving and clicking the mouse. In this way, the hand becomes an extension of the eye: I reach right into the screen and travel through its iconic, hyperlinked space (Shaviro 6-7).

The Internet does not simply provide services; it assaults our attention with a virtually infinite gamut of options. Every page that the user opens is another invitation to click and select, move forward and backward, wait until the page is downloaded, then quickly read some text, before being once again attracted to an image. The Web absorbs not only its user’s mental attention, but also her bodily focus, as her entire being becomes enmeshed in the network.

Such a totalizing medium calls for a specific theory of power. The Web, as a cultural and market-oriented medium, definitely strives to give the impression that it can cater to our every wish anywhere, at any given moment. The process of surfing online itself creates the feeling that the user is herself actively selecting the items that can fulfill her every desire. However, this impression of control is just that, an impression, first of all because surfing the Internet is always a frustrating experience; although the network always implicitly purports to be able to fulfill the user’s wishes, it never quite succeeds. Satisfaction is always promised and always delayed, leaving the surfer both with an uneasy feeling of disappointment and an urge to search harder. Therefore, it cannot just be assumed that since the Web user apparently is selecting what she wants to see, she is also controlling what appears on the screen. In other words, it would be too simplistic to suppose that she is creating the content and the experience of the Internet. Rather, she is swallowed up into a network of predefined possibilities, one that is all the more powerful in that it has already gained her entire bodily as well as mental attention, and has managed to infuse the impression that she is, in fact, controlling the stream of webpages that she is seeing.

Power, then, cannot be defined as a top-to-bottom, vertical structure, but must be thought of along Foucauldian lines, i.e. as a totalized horizontal system in which every agent participates, while simultaneously ensuring its implementation. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault likens the functioning of modern power to that of the Panopticon, a 19th-century surveillance system in French prisons that enabled jailers to look at prisoners at any moment without being seen, thereby making sure that the inmates would police themselves spontaneously and behave according the rules. Shaviro argues that this power has transformed itself with the Internet, and that it is not centralized and rigid anymore, since contemporary social control no longer needs to confine people in order to police their behavior. Rather, power has followed the distributive pattern of the Web and has become flexible, adaptative, slack. Whereas Foucault’s prison system is articulated around a central surveillance point, the concentration of the group within a limited space, and the invisibility of the controlling agent, “in a totally networked world, where every point communicates directly with every other point, power is no longer faceless and invisible. Instead, it works in plain sight. Its smiley face is always there to greet us” (Shaviro 31). And, one might add, its face is pink and blue and whispers “sssh”…

More seriously, these definitions of power and the Internet are useful to sketch out the type of subject linked to sssh.com. Instead of a subject that actively participates in the creation of a site that responds to her every desire, it seems more appropriate to speak of a subject produced by the website –and thus by power. By this I do not mean to imply that sssh.com, just by virtue of its existence, radically transforms its user’s subjectivity. Rather, I want to argue that the normativity of the website, and its entanglement in a network of equally normative sites and cultural artifacts, aims at producing a subject who will police herself spontaneously and so efficiently that she will even come to forget the possibility of dissent. In this Web-dystopia, she will do so all the more unthinkingly that the medium she uses has aborbed her body as well as her mind, and has created the impression that she was a controlling agent rather than a passive subject-in-formation. The sssh.com user is thus integrated, literally body and soul, within a ubiquitous, innocuous-looking, and inviting control system that can be assimilated both to a haptic space and to a contemporary form of the Panopticon-shaped power defined by Foucault.

As has already been noted, the most striking absence on sssh.com centers around rape fantasies. If they are present, it is always in a liminal space, and suffused by a discourse that does not acknowledge the existence of a rape culture. For example, the scenes depicting female bondage are typically accompanied by texts stressing the importance of a healthy relationship with the member’s sexual and emotional partner. They do not, however, offer an unapologetic and radical appropriation of the desires that tend to shape female sexual subjectivity in a culture that grounds its doxa of sexual exchange in an overpowering of the feminine Other. In this context, it must be stressed that rape fantasies should not be seen as the ultimate form of subjection to phallogocentric discourse, but as a profound manifestation of subversion, for they constitute a radical appropriation of an oppressive discourse.

The woman staging her own rape, or that of another woman or man, trifles constantly with the danger of being re-inscribed within the Lacanian Symbolic order, that of language, which is also that of rape culture: she is at the mercy of being overpowered by guilt, which puts an abrupt end to the fantasy by bringing her back into the “real” world. However, this usually does not prevent her from masturbating and fantasizing over and over again, turning what has been constructed as the greatest danger in her life into the source of her most intense pleasure. In this sense, her body is grotesque, insolent, and mocking; it has, almost literally, the last laugh. This analogy with laughter makes perceptible the intensity of the resistance entailed in rape fantasies. Mikhail Bakhtin writes that “it is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorizing) distance… [it] delivers the object into the fearless hands of investigative experiment –both scientific and artistic- and into the hands of free experimental fantasy” (Bakhtin 328). The similarities with rape fantasies are evident, as they too abolish fear, distance, and hierarchy in order to let bold imaginary elaborations take over. Far from being traitors to their own kind, women who indulge in rape fantasies disguise themselves and poly-identify; they transform and appropriate a prototypical narrative that inherently dismisses the possibility for them to access power, especially in order to reach sexual satisfaction. Bakhtin qualifies the carnival as a “site of insurgency,” a potentially apt term to apply to rape fantasies as well. They enable the fantasizing subject to use an oppressive culture over which she has no agency, by a clandestine appropriation of cultural “products,” i.e. the omnipresence of rape. They form a repeated poaching of a territory that does not belong to the subject and that was not intended to be twisted in such a way.

In this context, the absence of rape fantasies on sssh.com is not a simple, forgivable lack, but an omission with deep political implications. The subject of the website is not only a normative one; she is actually made unaware of the sexual politics that found both her subjectivity and her subjugation. She is deeply, irrevocably non-oppositional; her sweet and willing and smiling face has erased any trace of subversion; she wants to “explore her sexuality,” but that really means pursuing a polished, moderate, non-extravagant one. In one word, she is the subject of rape culture. Her investigation will and can only take place within a predefined space, sssh.com, the shiny veneer of which masks a crueller reality: the space itself is a product of rape culture, and aims at producing subjects who are not even aware of the sexual politics by which they live – and therefore cannot oppose them.

But is that it? Is it enough to call it all a failure? Or is it possible simultaneously to cast a somewhat more forgiving, if not generous, eye on sssh.com? I believe so, for although its project does not acknowledge rape culture with its ramifications and consequences, it does strive to create a (relatively) safe and empowering space, one in which women are encouraged to endorse new identities and engage in new experiences. Although these are very seriously circumscribed within the normative limits outlined above, it seems that within that space there is room for a little experimentation –even if that just means a few gesticulations.

The Internet creates an anonymity that seems to be unmatched by any other medium: any woman with an internet connection can, from virtually any location in the world, view porn sites without ever having to suffer the amused grin of a shop dealer, or the embarrassment deriving from her lover’s curiosity about her cable package. Even if she shares her computer with other people, she can simply delete the History and leave absolutely no trace of her cyber-sexual peregrinations. Moreover, as several cyber theoreticians have pointed out, the Web makes it possible to experiment with different identities. The most famous case is that of “Julie,” a chatroom user who purported to be a crippled old lady and who gained the trust of several women: she would listen patiently to all their qualms, and offer some very judicious advice, which led to increasingly intimate confessions. When, after several months, one of the women insisted on meeting on her, Julie’s actual identity was finally revealed: “she” was in fact a forty-year old male psychiatrist who was fascinated by the type of conversations women held among themselves (Bell 126). Gender-switching has since become a common feature in chatrooms. One of them, LambdaMOO, offers users a choice among no fewer than ten genders. However, it should be noted that those experiments are bound to be limited in time and space: they constitute a play, not a radical reshaping of the user’s identity. Judith Butler herself has made it repeatedly clear that her theory of performativity did not imply that gender could be ‘chosen,’ but that gender played us (Salih and Butler 93).

Sssh.com, as a porn site, does not offer provide the possibility of foregrounding gender-play, but it does supply a similar experimental space with sexual identities: the member can surf around the website and try out different fantasies, some of which she may never have considered before. The S/M section, for instance, does at least have the virtue of existing at all. It seems actually that the most important form of identity-play at stake on sssh.com is the very appropriation of the sexual realm, a realm that is not generally perceived to belong to women. As Gayle Rubin wrote, “part of the modern ideology of sex is that lust is the province of men, purity that of women. It is no accident that pornography and the perversions have been considered part of the male domain” (33). Therefore, if it is accepted that women should have free and fulfilling sex lives, porn sites explicitly designed for women are necessary, and it is also crucial that they should emphasize the fact that women have the right to watch porn. From this viewpoint, a site like sssh.com is truly empowering: by constantly reminding its members that their enjoyment of pornographic material is legitimate, it does open up new perspectives and possibilities. The fact that the website features homosexual and S/M sex, although not unproblematically, does include these within the realm of recognized and authorized fantasies, which constitutes a positive evolution, broadening as it does women’s access to varied sexual experiences and pleasures.

How should we, then, characterize porn for women on the web? As a product that enables women to explore areas some of them would otherwise have left out, or as a dehumanizing tool that drastically limits their sexual perspectives? As an agent of power, or as a text that offers some liberatory perspectives? Janice Radway comes face-to-face with a similar dilemma at the end of Reading the Romance, which treats the joys and dangers of romance fiction. She argues that although the endings of such books systematically present the triumph of a traditional gender model, epitomized in a blissful patriarchal marriage, the major part of the story features an intelligent heroine who refuses to be dominated by a man. Drawing upon Frederic Jameson’s article “Reification and Utopia,” she claims that these texts cannot be read solely in a negative light: they do offer spaces of protest, of self-affirmation, and of independence, which are not simply nullified by the final pages.

A similar statement can be made about porn sites for women, for they do offer their members the possibility of living out their sexual lives in a more fulfilling way: by giving women access to a pornography designed for them, in a tone that invites them to accept their fantasies and to experiment guiltlessly in a realm that has traditionally been reserved for men, websites like sssh.com do to a certain extent accomplish their emancipatory mission. However, the limits put on this experimental space are so strong that they almost completely choke out the free space opened by sssh.com. By relegating rape culture to the limbo of subject-formation, the website creates a sort of artificial and self-contained nucleus of sexual free-play. Therefore, the subject interpellated by sssh.com is an extremely normative one. It is the archtypical female subject of rape culture, i.e., one torn between widely divergent demands: a woman willing to submit herself to sexual experimentation, while at the same time endorsing a non-threatening, polished, middle-class identity reminiscent of the “Angel in the House” decried by Virginia Woolf. The subject of sssh.com occupies an uncomfortable, schizophrenic space that strives to accommodate these mutually exclusive requirements without being granted access to the radically subversive energy provided by rape fantasies. This subjective interpellation is made all the more efficient by the very medium it uses: the Internet, as a haptic space that draws both the user’s body and her mind into its matrix, forms one of the most powerful agents of power, for it creates an illusion of mastery while actually anesthetizing the possibility of dissent.

What, then, could form an ethically sustainable and erotically arousing solution? For can it not be said that featuring, for example, images of abuse would simply constitute a deepening of rape culture, as has been suggested earlier in this article? I would answer that the outcome will depend on the context in which they appear: they certainly will and do when their sole purpose is sexual arousal, as is the case on certain male sites. However, these images may also be part of a larger, oppositional discourse that aims at deconstructing sexual power dynamics in Western culture, while understanding that subjectivity cannot simply be changed by waving the magic wand of political will –and that rape fantasies are therefore legitimate. In such circumstances, it seems to me that they would not only be admissible, but that their presence would in fact lead to a deep and genuine engagement with the very serious and eminently political questions raised by rape culture.


Notes

[1]“I have lived and slept in the same bed as English countesses and Prussian farm women… no woman has excited more passions among women than I have.”
[2] Not all world cultures are rape cultures. For an analysis of an alternative, see Helliwell.
[3] On this question, see for instance Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.

 


Works Cited

 

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Excerpts from The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Theory of the Novel: A HIstorical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.
Bell, David. An Introduction to Cybercultures. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Gubar, Susan. "Representing Pornography: Feminism, Criticism, and Depictions of Female Violation." Critical Inquiry 13 (summer 1987): 712-741.
Helliwell, Christine. "It's Only a Penis: Rape, Feminism, and Difference." Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25.3(2000):789.
MacKinnon, Catherine. Only Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-44.
Salih, Sara, and Judith Butler. The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
Shaviro, Steven. Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2003.
Soble, Alan. Pornography, Sex, and Feminism. Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2002.

 


 

 

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