Get Real! Pornography, Strip Clubs & Other Feminist Relationship Quandaries


This article is published in partnership with Scarleteen.com.
sylviaplath asks:

I
could really use some help on this issue. I am a feminist, and pride
myself on being open-minded and trying to keep my insecurities in
check. I have been with my boyfriend for years, and we have lived
together for 2. Within the past few months I have been looking at his
computer and seeing that he watches pornography. While I do try to
understand why, I cannot help but feel hurt. It brings up issues I have
with my own body and makes me feel bad and inadequate. While I am
trying to come to grips with this, I have found out that his friend is
getting married and they are going on a trip. I know they will be going
to strip clubs, and this is making me crazy. He is not the type of guy
who would cheat on me or that would probably really enjoy this, but
then again I didn’t think he was the type to watch porn. I feel like I
have become more paranoid knowing about this porn-viewing and now I am
not able to see clearly this situation. My main question is, if he gets
a lap dance, this is considered cheating, right? It seems like this
male tradition that for some reason is okay, and it’s just this free
pass. Should I talk to him about it? Do I have a right to be upset? I
feel so anxious and like I’m losing my grip with him and with my own
feminism. Please help me.

Heather Corinna replies:

I
don’t think that how we feel emotionally is ever about a matter of
rights. We cannot control what we feel, after all: we can only control
how we process, hold, express and manage our feelings. You feel upset:
whether or not you or anyone else thinks you have a right to have those
feelings, there they are. We feel what we feel, and I certainly think
we are all entitled to the full range of our feelings.

What cheating is depends on what any given couple have negotiated
and agreed on in their relationship model. Not every relationship has
the same fence around it, and there is no unilateral definition of
monogamy. What one couple agrees must be exclusive isn’t the same as
what another does. Because every person and every partnership is
different, there is no one set of rules for all. What your rules are is
something you need to determine together. In some relationships, using
pornography or going to strip clubs would not be considered cheating:
in others, one or both would.

As a fellow feminist, I don’t need to tell you that there are plenty
of things that have been or still are considered "traditional," to do
or think but which are or may be based in sexism or other kinds of
inequality. Because something has some kind of historical precedent
doesn’t mean that automatically makes it okay, that no one gets to have
a problem with it, or that no one can suggest that precedent is crap if
that’s how they — as an individual or as a group — feel about it. For
instance, the idea and practice that women should be who takes all the
responsibility or the lion’s share of child-rearing and housekeeping
is, effectively, a "tradition," but it’s one based in sexism. Feminists
quite unilaterally, as individuals and as a group, have voiced problems
with that tradition since feminism began.

I don’t know what other parts of your relationship may include
agreements one or both of you have just assumed, rather than earnestly
made together, but clearly one of the areas where you need to make some
clear agreements is with your agreements around sexual exclusivity and
monogamy.

You need to first figure out what you want and need when it comes to
the level of exclusivity of your relationship on your own: to do so
with a sense of what you want and need and also what you think
will be best for your relationship as a whole. If you strongly feel
that going to a strip club and/or being part of any services there is
both not okay with you and something you feel isn’t healthy for or
wanted by you in your relationship, and that is also not what you
consider monogamous (which sounds like how you feel about this), then
you put that on the table.

If what you feel on this (or any other issue) and need around it is
a hard limit, you say so. If it’s something you feel you can negotiate
around, then you say that. Then he gets to voice his feelings on the
matter, and you both consider each others’ ideas and feelings, then
work to find some agreement around both of your perspectives that
leaves you both feeling good and assures both your needs get met. The
same goes for his use of pornography. You get to decide if you are or
are not okay with a partnership where your partner uses pornography.
Whatever your objection to porn is based in, you get to have your own
objections, and you also get to choose partnerships which are in
alignment with your feelings. You have to also accept the other person
gets to do same: this isn’t about trying to change someone, after all,
unless that person already wanted to change, for themselves.

What that also means, though, is that you need to assert yourself
and put things like this on the table with potential partners, with as
much respect for your own preferences, ideas and wants as you have for
theirs. You being able to be who you are and want to be as an
individual has to be as important as you wanting to be in a
relationship. If and when a potential or current partner wants or does
things — be it porn or a lap dance, wanting or not wanting kids or
marriage — that you feel will or do not work for you, you need to
advocate for yourself from a position of wanting an equal and
well-suited partnership that best meets both your needs, rather than
from a position where one person’s needs or identity come first and the
other just has to suck it up. This obviously also means you have to be
prepared to negotiate or to potentially walk away from relationships
that don’t fit your wants and needs where the other person feels they
can’t or don’t want to negotiate to try and seek out a compromise that
works for both of you.

My suggestion for a good start with these issues in your current
relationship is to take out paper and pen and make three columns: one
for what your ideals are and what you really want, one for what isn’t
ideal for you, but you’d be okay with or could adapt to and a third for
total dealbreakers. For example, in addressing sexual exclusivity, I
may ideally want a primary romantic relationship where for right now,
we’re exclusive for any kind of genital sex (which I’d frame lap dances
as), but where that agreement is understood as something either of us
can revisit and potentially revise at any time. Let’s say it’s not my
ideal, but I could be okay with walking into a negotiated, honest open
relationship so long as certain rules are in place and any other
partners or situations are okayed first by myself or my partner. Let’s
make my dealbreaker someone who wanted to go outside the relationship
for genital sex with other partners without negotiating that with me,
or who planned to do whatever they wanted regardless of my feelings.

I’d make that list as involved as you can, encompassing as many
issues as possible. You also may find it’s a good relationship exercise
to have both of you make these lists then compare them.

When you’re done, take a look at your lists and evaluate how your
current relationship looks in that context. If it’s in alignment with a
whole lot of the first column and some of the second, with little to
none in the third, then you’re probably looking at a relationship which
fits you pretty well overall. You can then take any issues in your
second or third column that are a factor and discuss them with this
partner, working together to try and create agreements that feel good
to both of you. I know that sometimes that’s intimidating: if we really
want to be in a given relationship — or are afraid of being without
one — it can seem safer not to set hard limits and advocate for
oneself, and instead put your energy into trying to live with things
you really don’t want to. And while avoiding hard issues or potential
disagreements may well keep a relationship from ending, it won’t
nurture a particularly happy or healthy one.

You also just don’t always know how a partner really feels about
things until you really talk them out. It may be that he feels
differently about things in your dealbreaker column than you’re
currently presuming he does. You may think something is in his ideal,
column, for instance, that’s actually in the middle one; that’s
something he really could live with or without more easily than you’d
think. Some partners who use pornography, for instance, do so more out
of rote habit than anything else, and if they felt it was hurting a
partner or a love relationship, would be totally down with trying life
without it. Some men who might only go to a strip club with other men
to keep the peace or not have their masculinity put into question may
feel more emboldened to opt out or state an objection to it with a
partner’s support. You just never know.

While any of us, at any age, may have strong wants, needs and
dealbreakers we know about in advance, more often how we get to know
what all of these are for us is something that’s part of our
development, and which we discover over time. As you gain life and
relationship experience, you’ll have a better sense of what your wants
and needs, limits and boundaries are before you even start a new
relationship. Few people come to romantic or sexual relationships
knowing exactly what they want and need right at the gate: most of us
learn a lot of this as we go. Few people also first come to
relationships with anyone having explained to them that the "rules" of
any given relationship are something you make together, not something
writ in stone for all people. There is no one set of rules, no one
relationship model: what there is is what we make, be it with or
without awareness and conscious choice, but I’d encourage you to go for
the former rather than the latter.

It’s obviously a lot easier to negotiate terms of a relationship
when you start doing so right at the gate, and then simply adjust and
adapt them as need be. Even if you two have never really talked about
what your agreement to monogamy means, though, as people in a long-term
partnership who also cohabitate, you’ve probably negotiated at least
some things together, like the sex you have (or don’t) or how you split
household responsibilities and finances. Bring whatever skills you have
developed from those kinds of negotiations to this one.

It may be that your long-term partner is not in agreement with you
on these matters. You may find yourselves at an impasse, where to
continue the relationship as it is, one or both of you would need to do
or tolerate something you don’t really want to. Suffice it to say, if
you’re looking at that list you made and discovering that when it comes
to a relationship, you have very little that’s in that first column,
and most of what’s in your second and third, you probably want to
re-evaluate staying in this relationship, period. The best advice I can
give you is that it’s important in a relationship that everyone
involved is able to have a complete sense of self, to be who they are
and to never feel they need to compromise who their best self is in or
for a relationship. What our interpersonal relationships should be made
of is exactly who both of us are at our best together, with both of our
whole selves intact, loved and respected.

If you ever find a relationship asks you or your partner to
compromise your or their values or ethics, or asks you to be someone
other than who you really are, you’ll want to deeply consider if that
really is a good relationship to stick with and stay in. Because if it
does, it really is best to move on, seeking out partnerships that don’t
require that of either person; partnerships where on the things you
both feel strongest about, there’s a pretty easy accord and alignment.

One thing I want to be sure to mention is that a lot of women have
the idea that if they are going to be sexually or romantically involved
with men, they have to just accept that all men use pornography, or
will go to strip clubs, or will be sexual with others outside a
relationship, even if they’re not okay with those things. Know that
that isn’t true. Yes, many men purchase or use pornography, and many
frequent strip clubs. But there are also men who don’t do either. Some
don’t because they have no interest in those things. Some don’t because
a partner has expressed they find it hurtful or unhealthy in the
relationship, and they feel their partner and their relationship are
more important to them than porn, lap dances or falling in line with
other men. And some don’t even with partners who would be okay
with those things, expressly because those men feel those things are
sexist and/or not in alignment with their values.

I hope you know there isn’t any one feminism: we all have our own
feminisms and they vary widely. I’d certainly question if anyone really
was feminist who wasn’t on board with the goal of equity and equality
for all genders, and equity and equality for all women, but outside
that core value, even when it comes to how any of us think we can best
reach that goal, there is a lot of diversity.

Some feminists are okay with pornography or sex work (in general
and/or when it comes to themselves or partners participating in
either). Others are not. Our feelings can also depend on what we’re
talking about, be that about how porn is is made or in what environment
sex work takes place, what activities or attitudes either include, if
it is violent or nonviolent or how someone sees or utilizes it. For
some, these opinions are based on how those things make them feel about
themselves, while for others it’s more about the perceived impact (or
lack of impact) they see or understand porn or sex work as having on
women as a class or on the women who do sex work.

If it helps, here are some pieces to show you a brief spectrum of
feminist thought and positions on pornography and sex work, which
perhaps can help you better figure out your own stance:

You’ll see a lot of polarization around these issues, but there are
more than two "sides" and there are a lot of us who are somewhere in
the middle of the pro- and anti- poles.

You’ll also want to suss out how much of this is about porn in the
first place. For instance, is it his looking at pornography that is
making you feel so bad, or is it that you feel bad about a partner
thinking of anyone besides you sexually (which pretty much everyone
will do at least from time to time), and pornography is simply making
that tangible and real? Is this really about his use of porn, or is it
about your own body image or sexual self-image? If he cut back on or
stopped using the porn, would that take care of this, or might you need
something else from him entirely or additionally, like a little more
affirmation than he has strong sexual feelings for you or some changes
in your sex life?

I couldn’t help but notice you said you’ve been struggling with
issues around your own body and feelings of sexual inadequacy. I’d
expect, in a sexual relationship you have chosen to stay in that it
supports you feeling good about yourself sexually and benefits your
sexuality. A partner can’t give us esteem we don’t have or radically
improve our esteem just by finding us sexy or attractive, but in a good
sexual relationship, we should feel wanted and sexy, just as we are,
without having to try too hard. If you feel like you really don’t this
far into a relationship — especially if this has been a constant — or
that the particular dynamics of this relationship or the parts of it
that are sexual have made you feel less sexy or less happy sexually,
I’d take that into consideration in terms of if this really is still a
sound relationship for you.

I know that this process of evaluating a long-term relationship you
have valued — thus, why you have probably stayed in it this long —
can feel scary, and I also know that if you haven’t set hard limits or
negotiated difficult issues, it can seem daunting.

But let’s rally your feminist self here: in a mutually beneficial
partnership of equals, advocating for yourself is not just okay, it’s
essential. If you don’t do that, and a relationship isn’t truly made of
both people’s wants and needs being in consideration and alignment, but
of one partner who just does what they want and another who merely
acquiesces, then it’s not a partnership of equals. Voicing issues like
this can’t destroy a healthy, loving relationship: it can only
strengthen it and make it a better place for both partners. If a
partner loves who we are, they want to really know who we are, even if
that may challenge them in some ways or facilitate a need to
re-negotiate something or reconsider the nature of our relationship.

Here are a few more relevant links from the site to grow on:

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Follow Heather Corinna on twitter: @Scarleteen