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Just Desserts 

Cake offers straight women a comfortable woman-friendly place to be sexy. So why does it feel so retro?

Wednesday, Mar 29 2006
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Page 4 of 5

The movement quickly ran into trouble. In 1983, the members of WAP pushed forward a ban on pornography in Minneapolis, which they hoped would serve as a national model. Suddenly, their support dropped through the floor. To many, the campaigners began to look like puritans who were taking things too far, and free-speech activists rose up with a shout. Finally, a few young women emerged with shocking news: They liked pornography.

Carol Queen was among that crowd of rowdies. Today she's affiliated with Good Vibrations and runs the Center for Sex and Culture, but back then she was a 22-year-old troublemaker living in Eugene, Oregon. "I remember crossing the picket line at a movie theater to go see Story of O," she says, referring to the famous porn flick documenting a woman's education in sexual submission. "Even though it was rumored to have been written by a real, live woman, feminists did not accept that — they said it must have been written by a man using a woman's name, because no woman would ever think this way. That was the root of the issue."

Other voices spoke up about the pleasures they found in kinky sex, much of the discussion bubbling up from San Francisco. Annie Sprinkle, a prostitute and porn star, was one of those who took the next step, loudly proclaiming her satisfaction as a sex worker. These firsthand accounts were hard to deny, and eventually WAP crumbled. No one can recall exactly when the argument seemed to be over, but everyone agrees that the antiporn feminists lost.

"I think the antiporn feminists were exhausted," says Pamela Paul, author of the recent book Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. "It's a tough position to take. You're attacked. You're called a prude, you're called a reactionary, you're called anti-sex, you have no sense of humor, you're not sex positive."

Queen first heard the term "sex positive" at San Francisco's Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality when she enrolled in its Ph.D. program in 1987. "I wouldn't define it as, 'I like sex!'" she says. "It's more like, 'Everybody has the right to be who they are as a sexual individual, and access to information in a nonbiased environment.'"

Nearly two decades later, porn chic is the name of the game. But when you stop taking our sex-infused culture for granted and look around, it's profoundly weird. Cake is on the thoughtful end of the spectrum. Towards the other end, there's the thriving SuicideGirls business, in which tattooed hipster chicks compete for hits on an alt-porn Web site. The ever-growing "Girls Gone Wild" video empire is certainly not at a loss for subjects to flip up their shirts. And the vast majority of feminists accept all this under the rubric of "choice."

Even the executive director of California National Organization for Women is willing to defend the "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Those teenage girls are just taking the first step toward defining their own sexuality, Helen Grieco says: "I think it's about being a rebel, and I don't think it's a bad notion. Flashing your breasts on Daytona Beach says, ÔI'm not a good girl. I think it's sexy to be a bad girl.'"

But new critics are beginning to emerge. Radical feminists are launching blogs and taking up that old debate again, in a tougher cultural context. Often they're women who've survived or worked with survivors of incest, rape, abuse, and harassment. They are women who didn't find sex work rewarding or empowering, but soul-crushing and destructive.

"In order to accept prostitution, pornography, and stripping as part of mainstream sexuality, you have to not know how violent and exploitive it is, the emotional damage it does, how profoundly racist it is, how many of the acts meet the legal definition for torture," says Prostitution Research & Education's Melissa Farley. "And you have to not know that many people in it really want to get out."

The disconnect between the two camps quickly becomes obvious. Women who go to Cake parties haven't seen or experienced the horrors brought up by people like Farley. It's a pretty safe bet that nobody at the Impala was contemplating a career as a sex worker, that none of the attendees had ever been slapped around by a pimp or spent a six-hour shift pole-dancing for ranks of leering men. These unscarred, prosperous girls were just playing.

Critics say this kind of behavior is both elitist and insensitive. "A lot of these women, they're trying on these roles because they think it's edgy or hip," says Rebecca Whisnant, who co-edited a book called Not for Sale that was discussed at Girl Fest Bay Area. But they don't think about the effects of that play-acting, she explains. When camera-ready girls talk about stripping by choice, they camouflage the fact that many women in the sex industry have few other options.

It's a symptom of free-market feminism, says Whisnant, in which the rights of the individual consumer are paramount. "This is something that you see a lot in the statements of Ôfeminist' porn producers and so on. ÔIf this doesn't harm me, if in fact it's good for me, then it's feminist' — which is about the most piss-poor conception of feminism I've ever heard. Feminism is dead at that point, as far as I'm concerned," she states. "Feminism is not necessarily about doing what's good for you — hopefully it will be good for you. But it's about considering the implications of your choices and everybody's choices for women in general. That has just disappeared completely from the whole world of so-called sex-positive feminism."


The big, unanswered question is why so many women are embracing exhibitionism. Two splashy books recently came out that tackled parts of that query. Pamela Paul's Pornified and Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture both say Cake is one symptom of a much larger problem.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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