I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be empowered. It’s a question that frequently comes up in discussions about sexuality, sexism, porn, choice, and sex-positivity. I recently ran across this post on the topic by Jennifer Kesler which points out some of the ways in which this word is misunderstood and the effects that can have on how we think about our sexualities.
One of the things that Kesler points out (rightfully, I think) is that the word empowerment has been co-opted by a variety of people and forces that don’t have our best interests at heart. Rather than the original definition as “a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives,” it’s often used in ways that control, limit, and shame people for their choices. For example, I see a lot of articles and debates online about whether a particular sex act or body modification practice is empowering. I think that highlights how little we understand what power is.
Some Definitions of Power
In Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, Starhawk describes three types of power: “power-over,” which is domination and control; “power-from-within,” or personal ability and spiritual integrity; and “power-with,” which has to do with social power or influence among equals. While I think that those are useful definitions, I also find that power-over, power-from-within, and power-with seem like distinct experiences to me. Using the same base word and changing the preposition attached to it masks the fact that they have some fundamental differences.
I much prefer to think of power-over as control or force because that’s what it’s really about. Power-over is a process of making people do what you want them to do, whether it’s what they want or not. There might be a degree of regret or the controller might not care, as long as they get what they want. At its most extreme, this manifests as slavery and rape (among other things).
Most of us move through our days navigating these dynamics of control in a variety of ways. One of the mechanisms of privilege is being able to exert more control over others than is exerted over us, though few of us are entirely free from being controlled. And of course, when we have internalized the ways in which we’re controlled, we might not even see our chains. When we lack the language to describe them and when we can’t imagine any other possibilities, it’s much harder to get free of them. Newspeak, the language created by the Party in Orwell’s 1984, is the best illustration of that I’ve ever seen.
This notion of control lines up pretty well with Starhawk’s definition of power-over, but I find that the mechanisms of that are very different from power-from-within, or what I think of as empowerment. Empowerment isn’t about controlling other people or getting them to do what you want. Instead, it’s the ability to respond to their actions in whatever way you choose. It’s being able to consider their desires as information that you include in your decision-making process, and then acting in whatever way is most authentic to your own needs, goals, and wants. I also recognize that there are some people whose authentic desires are better left unmet.
Asking the Wrong Question
From this perspective, the question of “are blowjobs/porn/open relationships/etc. empowering?” makes no sense because the empowerment doesn’t come from the action. Instead, being empowered means you can make your own choices and then go from there. In many ways, it’s a blend of Starkhaw’s power-from-within and power-with. First, we figure out what actions will be aligned with our personal integrity and authenticity. Then, we (often) engage in communication and negotiation with another person (or other people) before doing whatever it is we want to do.
For example, if you’ve been told that giving blowjobs is not acceptable, then choosing to do that can be the result of your empowerment. On the other hand, if you’ve internalized the idea that you have to give your partner blowjobs, then empowerment could mean that you choose to not do it. In these cases, the actions are very different, even though the underlying processes of empowered decision-making might have been similar.
But the difficulty is that those motivations are often invisible. How can you tell that someone who wants to give a blowjob or get spanked or try anal sex is doing it because it’s what they genuinely desire? In a world in which our likes and dislikes are shaped and limited by the world around us, how do we know whether our choices are empowered or not? Most people will say that they’re making their own choices, even as they move with the herd. I’ve seen this happen around sexual decision making often enough to wonder if there’s any way to know for sure.
I’ve decided that, on a good day, the most that I can do is assess it for myself. Empowered choices leave me feeling joy. Not just the pleasure of the moment, but an ongoing sense of happiness when I reflect back on them later. Empowered choices result in a lightness in my heart, a feeling of satisfaction with myself and pride (not to be confused with arrogance). Even when the experience wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be, I don’t second guess myself. Instead, I take it as an opportunity to grow and use that information for the next time.
There’s a much different sense than I get from making decisions in order to comply with external directives. Those situations often result in feeling like I’m settling for less than I want or deserve. They’re making the best of a bad situation or accepting the lesser of two unpleasant options. Afterward, I might feel sadness, regret, or shame. Instead of a lightness in my heart, I feel heavy or compressed. And sometimes, I might talk about how amazing my decision was in order to convince myself and others that I’m pleased with how things turned out. Instead of feeling joy, I’ll act happy, but the mask doesn’t fool anyone except, perhaps, myself.
Where this can get even trickier is that if I’m talking with someone who’s triggered or squicked or simply confused by my choices, it can be hard for them to see past their discomfort and believe that my choice was empowered. They might not believe me when I tell them that I feel joy around it. Or they might tell me that I’m kidding myself, that I’ve bought the cultural messages that encourage or force people to act in certain ways. I’ve seen this play out in plenty of discussions, both in-person and on the internet.
How Do We Know?
This topic has come up in my personal life lately because my partner loves to cook and bake, while I really dislike it. I can do it, but I’m much happier with our division of labor: she cooks and I do the dishes. And although we both enjoy this dynamic, there was a time when we had some resistance to it. We talked quite a bit about the socio-cultural messages that define cooking as women’s labor and discussed whether we were buying into that or reinforcing them.
One day we realized that actually, my partner enjoys cooking and that’s ok. She likes reading cookbooks and figuring out the chemistry behind food. She loves getting kitchenware as presents, so I got her a saucier and a cookbook for Solstice this year. (The pan, not a professional chef.) And we decided that it doesn’t matter that traditional gender roles dictate that women cook. In our house, we do plenty of things that break down or ignore those messages. The fact that my sweetie gets joy out of cooking is what matters, so we stopped worrying about it. If she didn’t enjoy it, it would likely lead to resentment and that would be a problem, but we’d find ways to deal with it. Most likely, we’d split the cooking more evenly, just like we do with the house cleaning.
This experience makes it easier for me to understand why some people have concerns about empowerment and sexual decision-making, especially for women. There’s intense pressure to have sex in specific ways. Lots of people are cajoled or convinced or forced to do things that they don’t want to do, so it can be hard to see past that and accept that other folks actively choose to do the exact same activities. And for women in particular, the mixed messages that one hears create situations in which it seems like no matter which way one goes, empowered sexual choices are impossible.
Making things even more complex is that it’s often hard to determine the relationship between the person and the act from the outside. It’s not always possible to know what that is without asking them about it and creating a safe space for them to give an honest answer. And much of the time, our agendas get in the way of that. When we pay attention to their stories and set aside our preconceived notions, we’re more able to honor their choices and their empowerment. Or we can bring some fierce compassion to the conversation and support them as they explore their experiences and look for ways to make different choices in the future.
To oppose something is to maintain it. –Ursula K. Le Guin
A Fictional Perspective
In his classic 1951 science fiction story And Then There Were None, Eric Frank Russell described a planet that had been settled by the Gands, a group that created two tenets for maximizing personal freedom: Mind Your Own Business and Freedom- I Won’t. The first one highlights the idea that as long as someone’s actions don’t involve or affect you, it’s none of your concern. I don’t actually think that applies to Earth 2011 because I believe that we have an ethical responsibility to serve as allies to people who are being harmed. But in the story, genuine and authentic freedom was woven into the lived experiences of every single person through the second one, which I think changes the utility of that maxim.
The second one points out that freedom isn’t simply the ability to choose what to do. It’s also the freedom to say no, or in Russell’s story, I won’t. He illustrates it elegantly because freedom means being able to say both “I won’t do that” and “I won’t not do that,” as you choose. It means having the capacity to identify all of the possible choices and the room to make your own decision. It means the ability to say no, yes, maybe, tell me more, or anything else. It means having both the option to do something and the option to not do it.
This is what’s often missing from discussions of whether a particular sexual act is empowering or not. Arguing about whether anal sex or sex work or performing in porn or non-monogamy is empowering is pointless because the question isn’t whether those things are or aren’t. The question is what the relationship is between the person doing it and the act. Do they see it as one of several choices they can make? Are they dealing with any coercion if they choose otherwise, including the threat of social stigma, physical/emotional/sexual violence, or shame? Do they truly have the freedom to say “I won’t” without fear of reprisal? No matter how it looks from the outside, the only person who can actually make that assessment is the person making the choice. Defining it for them or in contradiction to what they say is the height of arrogance.
Of course, this gets more complex in the real world. What about the situation in which a partner says that they’ll end the relationship if they don’t get what they want? Is that a boundary or an ultimatum? How do we know whether they’re exercising their own freedom to say “I won’t” or trying to limit the other person’s ability to say “I won’t”? Each and every situation is unique, so I don’t have any answers. But I think that this way of thinking about it helps us frame the questions that need to be asked.
I’m hardly expecting this post to change the ways in which people
debate fight about whether a sexual practice is empowering or not. But I am going to exercise my freedom to say that I won’t get caught up in them anymore. I might point out that the arguments are missing the point, or I might not. I’ll see when I get there. But if you find yourself getting pulled into these sorts of disagreements, I invite you to step back. Though of course, you’re welcome to say “I won’t.” In the words of one of Russell’s characters, that’s freedom, isn’t it?
In my experience, the more we develop the capacity for self-possession and empowerment, the more we can support other people and bear witness to their individual paths, even when they look totally different from our own. That’s one way for our individual empowerment to expand and change things on a larger scale. I don’t think it’s enough to only work on my own empowerment, but I do think that’s the first step. Or as Thorn Coyle phrased it, put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.
I find that the more I move through the world as a sexually empowered person, and the more I share my experiences with the people around me, the more inspired they become to lean into their own edges and discover how to overcome the barriers to their own empowerment. I owe a debt to the elders of my communities who modeled for me what it means to be relentlessly yourself, and I do my best to pay it forward and pass it on. And in the meantime, if it means that we can fuck the way we truly want, then I’m ready for that revolution.