Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™

mileycyrusI haven’t watched the Miley Cyrus videos. I had work to do and simply couldn’t be bothered at first. And, as the cultural commentary intensified, it became a sort of badge of honour to keep avoiding it. Also, the music isn’t my thing and I just didn’t want to get involved in a drama that felt conflated. Nonetheless, I’ve been exposed to the whole shebang thanks to social media.

And now, despite my best efforts, I’m going to write about it because of this insightful commentary by Lisa Wade, PhD, called My 2 Cents on Feminism and Miley Cyrus. I recommend you read the full article before continuing on. Here’s the main gist of it:

On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system.  They are architects of their own lives.   On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system.  The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure.  No amount of wishing it were different will make it so.  No individual choices change that reality.

So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it.  She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition.  But why?  Because that’s what the system rewards.  That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.

In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain.

So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs?  No.  Can her choices be fairly described as good for women?  No.

The concept of a patriarchal bargain sounds really interesting and it has a lot of truthiness about it. It’s a handy term to describe decisions made to get ahead within our existing social system. All well and good. But I felt I had to write a blog post about the term because it – and the conclusions Ms. Wade comes to – don’t entirely ring true for me. I starting thinking about this in terms of porn and the sex industry and the people I know who work within it. And things are a little askew.

In theory, the phrase “patriarchal bargain” can be used to describe any sex worker or adult star. They capitalize on their good looks, their bodies, their exhibitionism, their knowledge about sex and their willingness to please the viewer or partner. Sex work is a good way to make money and get ahead in the world. Chosen freely, it’s a perfectly legitimate career path, one that can free up time for other pursuits or create wealth. Within a social system where sexuality is associated with a lot of stigma and shame, sex work can be lucrative. Indeed, as Miley showed, simply being overtly sexual can be lucrative because you get a shitload of free publicity that subsequently sells albums.


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The problem with the idea of a “patriarchal bargain” in this context is that it automatically assumes that acting in an overtly sexual way – or doing sex work – is a Bad Thing. That wearing skimpy clothing or twerking or getting nude or using your body to arouse/stimulate the viewer/client is inherently harmful, both to the individual and to women in general. Thus, Miley’s actions aren’t “good for women” in Ms. Wade’s eyes.

Her article takes the unspoken position that the ongoing one-dimensional depiction of female sexuality in a lot of pop culture and porn is bad for women in general because it sets up unrealistic expectations about how women should look, act and feel. I can certainly sympathise with that view; there simply isn’t enough diversity or compassion in how women are depicted in the media, music, porn and advertising. And yet I’m also slightly uncomfortable with it. It feels like it’s not the whole story.

I think one of the concerns some feminists have is that the kind of female sexuality that is depicted so often in music videos and in porn isn’t “real” or “authentic”. It’s assumed to be completely about pleasing the male gaze, performing and posing in certain ways that best show off the female body for male gratification. The woman doing the posing can’t really be enjoying it. She’s only doing it because she has to.

Unfortunately this way of viewing porn stars, sex workers and pop stars tends to deny their agency. What if they do actually like it? What if that is the epitome of sexy to them? Who is to say that that expression of sexuality is inherently anti-feminist or wrong?

Sure, that sexuality may have developed in a patriarchal society that gives priority to a certain kind of behaviour and appearance… but when it comes to sex, we can’t help what we like. Human sexuality is a messy, untamed thing that can’t necessarily be bent into shape to suit one’s politics. Indeed, the more taboo or “wrong” it is, the hotter it can be. Reality can sometimes get in the way of ideology.

The idea of the “patriarchal bargain” raises the question: what would female sexuality look like without a male-dominated culture? How would it appear visually? How would it express itself in relationships, on film, in music videos?

It’s an interesting thought experiment but it also a path to a certain kind of feminist dogma. The Official Authentic Feminist Sexuality™ can’t be defined, except to say that it’s not what you see in lad’s mags, music videos or porn. There’s no twerking, apparently. And it’s certainly not something that occurs in sex work. All of those women are just making a patriarchal bargain. False consciousness, of a sort. This way of thinking is a common assumption behind many anti-porn and anti-sex-work arguments and it’s why the “patriarchal bargain” phrase doesn’t quite work for me.

I’m not a sex worker or porn star but I know a lot of them. Many actively enjoy their work and see it as an expression of their sexuality. They don’t feel that their fantasies, kinks or appearance are inauthentic. They might actively seek out the cliches of “sexy” and embrace them, reveling in the power it gives them while simultaneously getting off on it. Some are using the “patriarchal bargain” as a way of expressing their own feminism. As Zahra Stardust wrote in her excellent essay What is “Fake” and “Real” in the Sex Industry?:

I experience pleasure at work in the mainstream sex industry that I certainly perceive as ‘real’. This pleasure comes from physical sensations (lactic acid, endorphins, sweat, carpet burn, whipping hair, a double ended dildo angled against my g spot, real orgasms) but also from the thrill of voyeurism (exhibitionism, cameras, being naked in front of thousands of people)… Sure, we may play with, embody and embrace hyper-femininity, but we are no less ‘authentic’, or political, or real, because our lip gloss is hot pink instead of ‘nude’.

Towards the end of her piece, Lisa Wade writes:

Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place.  In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.

Again, there’s an unwritten premise here that “commodifying [one’s] sexuality” is inherently bad. I’m not an anti-capitalist and to be honest I don’t have a problem with the idea of people making money from their bodies or their sexuality. It’s their life, who am I to tell them what to do with it? And I don’t think that it’s inherently harmful to individuals or society either.

As I said earlier, I think it’s reasonable to complain about the lack of diversity when it comes to depicting female sexuality. The issue isn’t that Miley made her “bargain”; it’s just there’s just not enough cultural and visual alternatives to that particular version of “sexy”.

It’s not the sex that’s the problem, it’s the ongoing need to represent it in a more holistic way. However insisting that the more “traditional” interpretations of “sexy” must be precluded is just another form of oppression.


Pic is from Lisa Wade’s article at The Society Pages

One Reply to “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™”

  1. I agree with this post so much. I hate concepts like the “patriarchal bargain”. It’s just another way to dismiss women’s experiences and choices by claiming their circumstances makes their decisions inherently suspect.

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