To pole dance, or not to pole dance: Is that the question? Readers respond to Christine Smallwood's "Girls Gone Wild."

Published October 7, 2005 7:30AM (EDT)

[Read "Girls Gone Wild," by Christine Smallwood.]

Perhaps your article bashing porn would be better written by someone who actually bothered to read, watch or enjoy any porn whatsoever. The issue of Playboy featuring Olympic athletes did, in fact, feature them in moments of athleticism; clearly your missing this key fact indicates missing the much larger point here. Guess what, Salon? Being sexy is fun, and it makes people feel good, be they men or women.

I've never understood why men should feel guilty for ogling a beautiful woman anyways -- don't we all ogle beauty? Should I feel bad because I'd rather watch a beautiful woman's hips than a Gucci bag in a window?

I find myself gazing longingly at beautiful women all the time, and sorry, Salon, I refuse to feel guilty for it. I am a bisexual, polyamorous, highly sexed female. I also work in the porn industry producing porn of myself, for myself, by myself, without being exploited by a single solitary soul. Now, that is empowerment, and that is certainly one of the reasons for the sudden raunch movement. Suddenly women really can control all of this themselves and do whatever they like, or nothing at all, if that is their choice.

Personally I think those T-shirts are stupid, and most of them come off as a bit mean. But they certainly don't seem to me to be worn by women beaten down by the sexual desires of those around them. They seem to be women with attitude who aren't scared to say "yes, so what?" to the world, and I have a hard time viewing that as anything but good. Many of those shirts also say things like "I have the pussy, so I make the rules." (I notice you strategically left that one out, even though it's a very popular motto these days.) Is it even possible to view that as anything but empowering for women?

To clarify the confusion about feminism; feminism is about giving women choices. It is not about Andrea Dworkin or any other twisted soul telling women what they "should" be doing, whether the current "should" of the moment is being a housewife or breaking glass ceilings. The idea behind feminism is that women should be able to follow their own dreams, not the dreams of the author or anyone else.

I am so fully offended by this article, I don't even know where to begin. Interesting that Levy would say that a woman dancing to music and glorying in the beauty of her own body and others' appreciation of it would be "cartoonish." Yet, somehow, you find the men offensive? I find being referred to as cartoonish offensive.

"When Levy suggests that stripping was more a parody of female sexuality than an enactment of it, Anyssa's friend Sherry snaps. "I can't feel sorry for those women," she said. "I think they're asking for it."

Asking for what exactly? For men to admire their beauty? For women to admire their beauty? Have you ever watched a woman who loves to dance, dance? I find it incredibly offensive to find beautiful women dancing in their gorgeous skins being called "cartoonish" and a "parody."

"As long as 'acting like a man' is valued, acting like a woman will be devalued. And regardless of how you understand gender, being a woman -- having breasts, bleeding once a month -- will be a handicap."

I have no idea what you are talking about. I really, really don't. A handicap? I love being a woman with every fiber of my being, from bleeding once a month to sore breasts before I do. I don't feel in any way handicapped because I can choose to live my life doing something that I love instead of slaving away day after day in a dead-end job in some cubicle that I hate. Why doesn't Salon do an article on all the women who are trapped by society and circumstance in jobs they hate that are murdering their souls? All the women who get up each day barely able to draw breath because they hate their lives so much?

I really expect more from Salon. I don't expect Salon to be yet another voice of the anti-sex telling me, "Tsk, tsk, young lady. Sex is bad." The whole problem with your article is the premise that sex is bad and somehow degrades women, when in fact sex is beautiful and empowering women to control their own sexuality can be incredibly beautiful!

When you allow only the negative aspects about sexuality to be visible (as in men exploiting women), you ignore all the amazing steps forward we are making as women. Does exploitation of women's sexuality still occur? Of course it does! But more and more women are taking over and controlling their sexuality in their own way. More women are producing porn, more women are opening sex-positive toy stores, more women are involved in taking powerful steps to control their own sexual destiny, and that is a great thing. I'm so tired of the dire warnings about porn, when over the course of the past eight years I've watched women embracing a sexual revolution because of the power the Internet gives them. Women are reaching out and grabbing their sex with both hands, and you want me to believe it's bad because it isn't quite what you expected?

I wish the author of the book, and the author of this article, would come to a sex-positive convention or swing party or any number of gatherings that are full of powerful, strong, beautiful, intelligent women who have an absolute blast playing with and exploring their sexuality. Places where women of all shapes and sizes glory in the beauty of their skin, glory in their sexuality, have a blast knowing they are making you throb, and revel in the power and the sheer fun of it. Perhaps their eyes would be opened.

-- Tamara

While many women engage in public sexuality because they are empowered, far more do it because of low self-esteem. Making out with another girl "to turn boys on" is not the action of an empowered woman. It's done by somebody with low self-esteem seeking approval from others and hoping to avoid being labeled an "uptight feminist." The co-opting of pro-sex feminist philosophy is simply a rationale to allow women to view themselves as empowered so not to admit to themselves they are anything but. As a man, I admit to taking advantage of this trend in public sexuality among young women today for my own entertainment, but I have no illusions that it is due to a rise in female empowerment.

-- Ken Goldstein

All this hand wringing!

The women's movement is just that -- a movement. It should be allowed the freedom to grow and change. It was not pornography that reduced feminism to "ashes"; rather it was unrealistic expectations and the refusal to allow for the unavoidable growing pains that caused the cannibalism of feminism's intellectual flesh. If even the women's movement can't avoid the self-destructive desire for perfection, it should be no surprise why young girls routinely launch themselves with such dead-eyed fervor into anorexia.

Feminism's anorexic tendencies toward perfectionism helped create the two opposing camps of pro and anti-"raunch." And these days, getting your feminist passport stamped in one camp is apparently enough to exclude you from admittance to the other.

So what are young women doing? They are opting out of both camps. This has meant that they have been left largely to their own devices to find a place where their experiences, both good and bad, can be valued for what they are -- steps along the way to a true definition of self.

Ms. Levy's book seems almost paternalistic in its low expectations for, and desire to protect, these women who have been left to their own devices. Women deserve better than this. They deserve better than the choice to either be a woman who identifies with statements such as "bleeding once a month is a handicap" or who has resigned herself to a lifetime of implants and Brazilian bikini waxes.

To reduce women to such one-dimensional characters is sad. I'd rather listen to Howard Stern any day.

-- Andrea G. Fischer

"Female Chauvinist Pigs" is poorly researched and simplistic to the point of being anti-intellectual, and Christine Smallwood bought it hook, line and sinker.

For example, she credulously parrots Ariel Levy's assertion that the Olympians in Playboy "posed as soft, sedate pin-ups, not in action on the court." In fact, the majority of the athletes were depicted "in action" -- running, stretching, pole-vaulting and diving.

Ms. Levy often blithely asserts her own biased assumptions as facts (like the recently debunked notion that teenage girls give, but rarely receive, oral sex). She lets her agenda -- demonstrating that anything she thinks is naughty must be disempowering for women -- run roughshod over her reporting.

None of this is surprising. Prurient finger wagging sells books. But Ms. Smallwood should not have allowed herself to be carried along for the ride.

-- Carrie Nielsen

On the one hand it is noteworthy and necessary to investigate this new phenomenon and to ask how and why it has developed. On the other hand, Smallwood is correct in asking for something a bit more potent than just a diagnosis. From my more advanced age (56) it is clearer to see both the horrible toll it is taking on the younger women in terms of the daily wear and tear, the increased use of drugs and alcohol, as well as the ways in which it corrupts most relationships. It is an unfortunate outcome to wanting everything without knowing the true cost of anything.

The most significant contribution we might make is to hold up a mirror to those who pursue this type of nihilistic hedonism and ask them to comment on what they see. It might help inform those of us who would like to help them form some kind of useful response. Without truly knowing them, it is difficult to feel for them. As things stand now, they just look awfully pathetic. More like the stereotype of the hooker than the real thing.

-- Deborah Emin

When I was learning to belly dance back in 1972 at the age of 18, I struggled with the knowledge that at that time belly dancing was viewed only as a dance by women for the explicit pleasure of men. Yet I still loved belly dancing for my own sensual pleasure and the pure pleasure of dancing itself. It is to me still a fine line. When does sensual movement and demonstration cross the line into subjugation and exploitation? Sensual movement is delightful for both the dancer and the viewer. For me the fine line is intent and purpose, coupled with self-esteem and our view of who and what we are. It always confused me when men took my belly dancing as only a sexy come-on for them and never thought of what I might be gaining from the dance. There is more to this than just the style of movement and what it depicts for one gender. We have a long way to go as a culture to recognize women's sexuality without the exploitation and commercialization of it for the explicit benefit of only one-half the population.

-- Lilith De' Anu

Both Ariel Levy's book and Christine Smallwood's review overestimate the influence of feminism on today's raunch culture among young women and girls. Levy's subjects may have an unread copy of "The Feminine Mystique" under their beds, but the overwhelming majority of working and middle-class girls don't -- and have probably never heard of it. Smallwood only touches on the real reasons for "cock-tease" T-shirts and bouncing juggies near the end of her article -- the hyper-commodification and marketing of sexuality in mature capitalist consumer societies.

[The issue is] not so much about ideas, and identity, and all that -- it's much simpler. It's just about money. Big business and Madison Avenue (on the right) know that the human sex drive is the most powerful marketing tool ever known. The path may have been paved, ironically, by the left's assault on normative tradition, inasmuch as tradition was often used to justify repression. But traditional (or religious, or whatever) morality that told us that 14-year-old girls shouldn't advertise themselves as junior sluts also went by the wayside. Normative morality is bad now, so all that's left is consumerism and plenty of firms ready and willing to make money hand over fist by selling sex.

It's no wonder that so many girls and boys wallow in raunch when they're bombarded by it 24 hours a day. We're trained to be good consumers, and we imitate what we see. Feminism and its discontents probably play a small role in this whole dynamic. Ultimately, as far as ideology is concerned, it could be more of a failure and sell-out of conservatism: too much money to be made to worry about girls gone wild. Now smile, sweeties, kiss each other for the camera, and go buy some more thongs at Abercrombie, OK?

-- David Schlaefer

Feminists who started the movement seem to have thought of female emancipation as a thing -- like a diamond -- which once you had, everything else would take care of itself. They wanted access to men's work, pay scales and freedoms, while not accommodating the fact that a lot of men's freedom is filled with moronic drivel, drudgery and driven by immature instincts, petty political and macho posturing -- excluding the men who make efforts to fill their freedom with healthier pursuits.

So now the woman with a job, money and spare time faces the same conundrum, while also being made to feel insecure and more selfish by everything going on around her. She's unhappy and too lazy or ignorant or scared to do anything about it. Some work on her boobs might complete her life. Ever notice how the people who make efforts to look like they have a full life usually have an empty one? And how the people who don't care what their life looks like to others have a full one? Living our lives to prove things to others, especially strangers, dooms us to lives of lonely inanity.

But the double-edged problem for women now is that men generally fill their time with even more crap than ever -- the few who live otherwise being in short supply -- so that to be in the company of men and maybe get one for yourself means having to play along with the nonsense that passes for culture these days.

So in the end, women get short-changed again -- by men, by commercially driven culture and by each other.

-- Paul Fenn

I was more than a little insulted reading Christine Smallwood's analysis of "Female Chauvinist Pigs," because it seemed to insinuate that any woman who doesn't act like a traditional stereotype of female sexuality is faking it. Smallwood rightfully questions the assumption that women should tailor their sexual behavior and feelings to make themselves attractive to men, but in her critique is an implicit message that women who do like porn or raunchy sex or being slapped on the ass are wrong to feel that way. She implies that she knows better than we do what we want, or what's good for us, and that if we choose to behave in a way that men like, even if we do it because we like it too, we're not being as authentically female as women whose sexuality is quieter and less "cartoonish."

Feminism is supposed to be about choice. Smallwood, Levy and other women who don't like the in-your-face sexuality they see on TV have the choice to change the channel, to protest, and to spread the message that women don't have to cater to men's desires. But I wish they would leave me the choice to label my own desires -- whether they approve of them or not -- as feminine and strong and beautiful in their own way rather than insisting that if I disagree with them, it must be because I've been brainwashed by men.

-- Amy Phillips

I have become convinced in the last decade or so that when men want power they play sports, join the military, or play office politics. However, when women want power, we tend to play harem politics and adhere to that maxim "When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." I think that Ms. Levy is on to something with her book and I hope that she will continue to explore this mind set.

-- Camille Ball

By Salon Staff

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