The term feminism is as fluid as its goals have been through the years. Right now, post-voting rights, we are in a period called the fourth age of feminism. Feminism in its fourth age has been going through puberty. While feminist movements of the past had clear goals and ambitions, sometimes to a fault, in present time it seems the term feminism is getting stretched thin. For something or someone to be feministic is now a goal to be reached, and the bar is set by millions of differing opinions.
Fourth age feminism also seems to come with an inherent sexual discourse; on one side the expression of sexuality as a form of expressing feminism, and on the other side the claim that this “sexual feminism’’ pushes women back into a mold of having to be desirable. As always, there’s something to say for both sides, and the reality lies in the nuances in between. To explore this no-man’s-land I will be looking at two expressions of this ‘“sexual feminism” that took the internet by storm the past year: WAP and OnlyFans.
Take WAP; the title of which refers to an aroused vagina, for the few reading this who have never heard of Cardi B. Reactions to this song, and music video, varied wildly, especially once it reached further than the artist’s usual audience. Among the reactions were a lot of women who found the song empowering. Terms like “feminist anthem’’ were thrown around too. While this title can be debated, it is fair to say that both the production of the song and its content are empowered and can therefore inspire.
The explicit sexual nature of the song wasn't groundbreaking; the positive sexual representation of the vagina and the female orgasm however, was. At least in this mainstream. While women in the rap industry have touched on these themes before, think Missy Elliott , it is still fair to say that WAP has taken this to new levels. The vagina is still stuck in negative frameworks of being something dirty and going unmentioned in conversations about sex. Open discussion of women enjoying sex is still a tentative concept. Therefore, a song like WAP, which is very clear about the kind of enjoyment women can take in sex, is undeniably a positive force in getting away from this stigma.
There have been countless songs by male artists where women are framed as sexual subjects, and their bodies are discussed. In a post-“Baby Girl, are you gonna suck it or not’” (Lil Wayne) world, it’s a little bizarre that WAP should still be this much of a controversy. The subject matter is not new. What is new, is the shift for women from subject to producer, say from muse to artist. Cardi B is an artist who has a platform that she built, and she is using this to produce her own content, in which she can be as explicit about her sexual desires and sex life as she’d like to be and laugh her way to the bank too. The sexualization of women in order to sell a product has existed as long as media has and the music industry may be one of the biggest players in this game. Now we have finally arrived at a point in time where women themselves have the opportunity to create their own products and content and make a profit of it. If they choose to make this content sexual, or promote it by sexualizing themselves, then this shouldn't stir up more of a fuss than it has the last 200 years.
Another case of women going from subject to producer is the platform OnlyFans. While not all users of the platform produce sexual content, it can still best be described as the child of a porn site and Instagram, on a subscription basis. Subscribers can pay a monthly fee to a content creator and get different levels of interaction and access out of it. Some creators even offer a “girlfriend-experience’’, where they text the top level of subscribers. Other than that, often the feed is filled with nude pictures or videos of sexual nature. There has been quite some pushback on the platform. There is a lot of shame and stigma surrounding the content creators, most of which are women. It fits the conversation that always follows every form of sex work; where somehow there is a demand for the content, but a contempt towards the women who deliver this content. Or easily said; everyone watches porn but being a pornstar isn't seen as a respectable job.
What is interesting yet again with OnlyFans is the producer role or the content creators. They have complete control over what they post, what they are comfortable with, and other than the platform fees, they earn all of the money themselves. This means videos on their profile are always guaranteed to be consensual, and the profit goes to the subject of the videos. In a lot of ways OnlyFans is a woman-friendly alternative to traditional pornsites, where all of these things are not a given.
This doesn't take away from the intended audience for these productions, of course. The concept of the male gaze can still be applied to WAP and OnlyFans. This gaze can be described as a lens on all forms of media that depicts as men see them or would like to see them. OnlyFans thrives on profiting off of this male gaze and feeding into at the same time. This is especially the case with “the girlfriend experience”, which, bluntly put, attracts the kind of men who might have a negative or complicated relationship with women in the offline world. Personally, I think it is fair to say you don't knowingly seek out an orchestrated idea of a relationship with a woman you don't know if your views on women and relationships aren't flawed. With WAP this is a little more nuanced. There is a split between audiences here. Women can find the lyrics empowering and relatable and fun. Find me a man who gets off on the lyrics alone on the other hand, and I will owe you a twenty. This group will feel more spoken to when watching the video, since this plays into the constrictions of the male gaze more.
Again, these examples are allowed to both play into the male gaze and have a feminist nature. But it’s unfair to say that using sexuality to empower women doesn't often still adhere to a patriarchal power structure as well.
However, the condemnation of content creators on OnlyFans and Cardi B for producing sexual content about themselves is unreasonable when taking into account that what they are doing isn't new; it’s just new for women to be producing this content themselves. Above I talked about how arbitrary it is to label something as ‘feminist’. But on paper, women expressing sexuality on their own terms, and making profit from it, sure seems feministic. Especially since in the process they are providing their audiences with apositive representation of the female sexual experience, and ethical and consensual alternatives to pornography. Sexual feminism, therefore, cannot be condemned just for its sexual nature. If women can be anything, then they can also be sexual.
This is especially relevant in lieu of the policing that’s part of the culture of feminism these days. A dangerous view people hold of feminism is that only “enlightened” women can be feminists. People who hold these kinds of views might look down on stay-at-home moms or women who are not challenging traditional gender roles in every part of their lives. Excluding types of women for not fitting into a feminist mold is problematic and painfully ironic. Shaming women for expressing their sexuality and using this to make a profit is not only a terrible interpretation of what feminism is, but also ignores the roots of the actual problems of using the female body to make a profit.
Simply put, saying WAP is a Feminist Anthem has its dangers, but so does exclaiming that things like OnlyFans and WAP set women back. As always, it is not that black and white. As a culture and as feminists, we must stay aware of the fact that sexuality and feminism are not and cannot, be inherently linked.
There is a place in media and in feminism for women who wish to express their sexuality. But it cannot escalate to a point where sexual feminism stands as the only representation of feminism. This is why diversity in produced content is important. When women in media are ostracised or less successful because they do not play into their sexuality, then the fourth age of feminism has failed us.