Category Archives: sex in media

How And Why “No Strings Attached” Became My Favorite Romance Movie

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A few years back, I cited “Crazy/Beautiful,” an underrated cinematic gem from 2001, as my favorite romance movie. That movie, which I feel has aged better than similar movies from previous decades, has a special place in my heart and it always will. It was the first romance movie that I genuinely enjoyed as both a movie and a love story.

However, I’m here to announce that my ranking has recently changed. I still love “Crazy/Beautiful,” but it is no longer my favorite romance movie. That rank now belongs to “No Strings Attached,” the sexy romantic comedy from 2011 starring Ashton Kutcher and future Thor, Natalie Portman. As of this moment, it’s a rank that will be very difficult for any future movie to top.

The premise of “No Strings Attached” and how it became my favorite romance movie is a remarkable story, in and of itself. This is one of those movies I didn’t expect to be so impactful. I ignored it when it initially came out in theaters. The premise sounded generic and it didn’t help that a similar (and inferior) movie called “Friends With Benefits” came out at the same time.

This is even less romantic than it looks.

It’s a common romance trope. Two people decide to eschew traditional dating methods and just stick to sex. They don’t want anything serious. They just want steady, enjoyable sex, minus the complications that relationships bring. It starts off fun and sexy. Then, things get serious when emotion and jealousy enter the picture. Eventually, both characters realize they love each other and that’s the end of that.

It’s not an overly elaborate premise for a love story. I’ve written more than my share of those as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It can be a great love story when done right. The problem is it’s rarely done right. It’s also painfully predictable. It’s next to impossible to evoke decent drama when the conflicts and resolutions are so obvious. That was what made “Friends With Benefits.”

That was also why it I didn’t bother seeing “No Strings Attached” for years. I thought it seemed too generic. Then, on a whim, I decided to check it out on Hulu. I fully expected to turn it off halfway through once the plot settled into familiar patterns. I freely admit I was dead wrong. I pre-judged this movie and that was a mistake on my part.

By the time the credits rolled, I was smiling from ear-to-ear and shaking my head in disbelief. This movie did something I didn’t expect it to do. I didn’t even think it was possible, given the sheer volume of romance I’ve written and consumed. It struck all the emotional chords it needed to and then some. Most romance movies these days are lucky if they can strike just a few.

To appreciate this, you can’t just look at the movie through its general plot summary. At its core, “No Strings Attached” follows the basic script of two people agreeing to casual sex in lieu of a formal relationship. However, what makes this movie stand out is how it navigates this premise through its two main characters, Emma Kurtzman and Adam Franklin.

Before these two characters ever start having sex, the movie takes time to establish who they are and why they decide to seek such an arrangement. Adam and Emma aren’t just a couple of attractive strangers who cross paths and decide they like casual sex. They’ve actually known each other for years, albeit informally.

The first 10 minutes of the movie are dedicated to showing that they both end up in such a frustrating place in their personal lives. Adam just broke up with his girlfriend, Vanessa. Then, his father, a former TV star, decides to start dating her. Naturally, that leaves him pretty messed up.

Emma’s situation is not much better. Before they reconnect, her father dies and she doesn’t demonstrate the greatest coping skills. Later on, her sister, Katie, is getting married and her coping skills still haven’t improved. Neither she nor Adam are complete wrecks, but they’re trying to navigate difficult personal matters and failing miserably.

These issues have nothing to do with romance, sex, or loneliness. They’re legitimate, relatable issues that real people deal with, even if they’re not as attractive as Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. That makes their problems and their need for comfort feel genuine. It also makes their pursuit of a more casual, less complicated relationship more understandable.

This is where both the story and the romantic chemistry in “No Strings Attached” gains its endearing appeal. It helps that it’s a very sexy appeal, as well, but that’s only ever secondary, at most. As Adam and Emma pursue their new arrangement, we see that it’s not just fun and sexy. It’s genuinely good for them.

Being together in this unique arrangement helps them in many ways. They’re better able to navigate the other issues in their lives. Some of those issues have to do with work. Adam is trying to make it as a writer on a TV show while Emma is trying to further her career as a doctor. Others are on a more personal front with Adam’s dad being a heavy source of drama.

Whatever the issues, the relationship helps Emma and Adam in ways that are subtle, but noticeable. Being together, even if it isn’t romantic, is genuinely good for them. Even when new stresses enter the picture, they help each other get through it. They get to a point where you can’t help but root for them, both as individuals and as a couple.

That journey to something more serious than casual lovers does happen, but it’s chaotic. Considering how predictable stories about casual lovers tend to be, this is one of the most refreshing parts of “No Strings Attached.” It doesn’t happen all at once. There are even some major setbacks along the way. However, there’s a clear and logical progression with Adam and Emma’s romantic journey.

They start out as casual acquaintances.

Then, they start enjoying each other’s company.

Then, they become friends.

Then, they become lovers.

Then, they start to legitimately care about one another.

Then, they start to develop deeper feelings for one another.

Then, they confront those feelings together.

Finally, they fall in love.

Again, it’s not a smooth transition. There are moments in which the extent of their romantic connection is unclear. What Adam and Emma want from one another seems to fluctuate, which makes them feel very human. While it never comes off as entirely one-sided, it never feels like a bland love story in the mold of a fairy tale.

In addition, “No Strings Attached” also avoids the common trap of making sex seem like this huge complication for real romance. In many other love stories of this nature, sex is often framed as this make-or-break act for a couple. Either having sex destroys the romance or it makes the romance inevitable. It gives the impression that you can’t have sex without falling in love.

Beyond reinforcing harmful notions espoused by repressive purity culture, it undercuts the substance of the romance. It implies that it’s contingent on sex in order to blossom. The romance and the sex in “No Strings Attached” is portrayed with more complexity. One never depends on the other, but they do plenty to complement each other.

Ultimately, great sex isn’t the reason Emma and Adam start to fall in love with one another. It acts more as a catalyst. By being together, they’re not just happier and more sexually satisfied. They become better at navigating the various quirks of their respective lives. That’s basically the epitome of a healthy romance.

More than anything else, the end of the movie clearly establishes that these two people want to be together. Their love is not something they can’t avoid or escape. It’s not bound by destiny and ordained by higher forces. Emma and Adam get together because they choose to.

The love they find is not some burden that provokes jealousy or loneliness. They end up together because they want to be together. Their love works because it’s real, sincere, and genuine. This is what makes the final few minutes of the movie the most cathartic I’ve ever experienced in a romance movie. It was those final minutes that sealed “No Strings Attached” as my new favorite romance movie.

There are many other elements of this movie that I could praise for hours on end. I could probably write an entire book on why this movie worked so much better than “Friends With Benefits.” I’ll save that discussion for another time. For now, I encourage anyone out there with a taste for romance to check this movie out. Give it a chance, like I did. Let me know if it had a similar impact.

I don’t doubt more romance movies will come along and challenge “No Strings Attached” for the title of my favorite. I watch more romance movies than most straight men and it may only be a matter of time before another movie comes along that exceeds both this and “Crazy/Beautiful.” I honestly look forward to that day, but “No Strings Attached” sets the bar pretty damn high.

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Why We Should Stop Bleeping, Blurring, And Censoring

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Over the course of history, certain tools, traditions, and words have become obsolete. It’s just part of the ever-changing nature of society. It’s why we don’t use VCRs or cassette tapes anymore. It’s also why we don’t use words like jargogle, corrade, and kench. Those are all real words that used to be common in the English language. Now, they’re relics of history.

Given the chaotic, yet evolving nature of language, why do we still censor certain words in the media? I don’t ask that question as someone who thinks Big Bird should start dropping F-bombs on Sesame Street. I’m genuinely curious as to how we can still justify bleeping certain words when they’re said on TV or over the radio.

I know the history of censorship in mass media in the United States. I know there are laws like the Communications Decency Act and famous Supreme Court cases like FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Many of these laws have a basis in protecting the eyes and ears of children from hearing or seeing something objectionable.

At a time when the media had only a handful of accessible channels, the might have made sense to some extent. I say might because I certainly don’t agree with bleeping or blurring anything. Hiding something, be it profanity or female nipples, doesn’t make it less real. If anything, it gives it a greater allure, but that’s beside the point.

We live in different times now. That FCC v. Pacifica Foundation decision was rendered in 1978, a time before the internet, smartphones, and comments sections. Today, anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can look up any amount of obscene, indecent, profane content, plenty of which is accessible to children for free and without a credit card number.

Kids know what these words are. Chances are, they know what female nipples look like too. However, TV shows and radio stations still blur and bleep these things as though they’re as damaging as a pack of cigarettes. I know the law is often slow to catch up to trends in technology, but at this point, bleeping or blurring anything is more a joke than a legal mandate.

That’s easy for me to say as a legal adult with no kids, but I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a kid. I remember hearing these dirty words and seeing these dirty images. I knew what they meant. My parents didn’t hide that from me. They didn’t like me saying those words or talking about those topics all the time, but they told me the truth and I understood it.

Kids may be impressionable, but they’re not stupid. Most kids are smart enough to understand that words carry certain meaning and the human body is composed of many parts, some more visually appealing than others. Censoring it doesn’t change that. If anything, it sends the message that everyone thinks they’re too stupid or weak to handle these concepts.

Aside from insulting kids as a whole, it also operates under the assumption that just hearing certain words or seeing certain images somehow damage them, as though human beings are ever that simplistic. While there is some research on this topic, the conclusions are fairly limited. The only common thread seems to be that, when it comes to dirty words, context matters.

There are times when we, as human beings, need to verbalize our emotions. When we’re angry, in pain, or upset, we’re going to want to communicate that. Profanity is just a byproduct of that. I know that when I stub my toe, I don’t stop to censor myself. I drop as much F-bombs as I have to and the world remains intact, even when there are children nearby.

That doesn’t mean I want kids to cuss like me all the time. Again, there is a context. There’s a time and a place for that sort of language. That’s an important lesson to teach someone at any age. That way, they’ll know not to sound like an asshole at a job interview or while on a date. Bleeping words doesn’t teach that lesson. It just gives these words more power than they deserve.

Standards are always changing. There was a time when Clark Gable saying “damn” in “Gone With The Wind” was considered shocking. When I was a kid, I certainly got plenty of scorn when I said words like that, even while not in public. However, hearing them on TV and movies didn’t change my understanding of these words. It just sounded stupid.

This used to be considered mature.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say “damn” in a TV show or song. It doesn’t get bleeped or censored. More and more, words like “shit” aren’t being bleeped either. Rick Sanchez says it at least once an episode on “Rick and Morty.” There was even an episode of “South Park” that made saying “shit” on a TV show a big deal.

In terms of knowing when something has become obsolete to the point of absurdity, that’s as clear a sign as any. The same goes for blurring certain body parts. The widespread availability and accessibility of internet porn has removed all sense of mystery from the imagery of breasts, butts, and genitalia. Kids today no longer need to find someone’s porn stash to see these parts in all their glory. They just need an internet connection.

Now, that’s not to say I’m okay with every prime-time network show depicting the same level of profanity, sex, and violence as an episode of “Game of Thrones.” Like anything, there can be too much of it and if overdone, even the most obscene or indecent concepts lose all meaning and are devoid of impact.

There are also some people who are genuinely uncomfortable using certain words and seeing certain images. That’s perfectly fine. That’s their choice. Since there are plenty of options in terms of channels, websites, and radio stations, they don’t have to listen to or see this kind of content. Even if they do, the world doesn’t end because they’re temporarily distressed.

When the late, great George Carlin famously listed the infamous seven dirty words that became the basis of a Supreme Court case, there was a context and a situation at the time that made this kind of censorship seem reasonable. That context and those times are long gone. Carlin himself understood that. When it came to deconstructing the absurdities of language, he said it best when he made this observation.

These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It’s the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

 

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Theon Greyjoy and Sansa Stark: How “Game of Thrones” Managed to Avoid Double Standards

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The following is an article written and submitted by DC-MarvelGirl 1997, who is a friend of mine and a talented young writer. She has a website and a YouTube channel that I highly recommend. I sincerely thank her for taking the time to write this, as it relates closely to other issues I’ve brought up on this site regarding gender, double standards, and media depictions. Enjoy!


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In a world of double standards, there comes a point where we should question when something is no longer a joke. With television shows such as “Cobra Kai” and “Married with Children” managing to poke fun at emasculation and male circumcision, after the fact we oftentimes question why we find those jokes funny. If those same jokes were made about women, it would be considered “sexist”. When it comes to men, it is almost as though we are okay with men being brutalized.

It’s pretty hard to avoid double standards in this day and age. However, I would say that there might be an exception to this. Today, I will be discussing the television series “Game of Thrones”, and how they managed to avoid double standards about gender.

Now, I’m not expert on “Game of Thrones”. In fact, I’ve only started reading the first book, and I am halfway through it as I am writing this. When you find a story that genuinely intrigues you and piques your interest, you want to keep reading it. With “Game of Thrones” it is no exception. Additionally, when it comes to issues such as gender, the novels do not hold back. The television series most definitely didn’t hold back when it came to showing brutalization of various characters. The throne room scene where Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark is being stripped and beaten in front of noblemen forever solidifies for me why she’s such a great actress. In fact, it is my favorite scene to view in general. However, naturally, we as human beings would be uncomfortable seeing women being beaten and brutalized. And I can attest as a woman myself that it is disheartening to watch happen. I think a huge part of it is because we consistently try to protect women and keep them as pure as possible. It consistently shows throughout history, as well, how women are treated in comparison to men.

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In Sansa’s case, she’s received her taste of brutality on more than one occasion. She’s been forced to suffer and endure so much throughout the course of the television series. You watch the scenes where she is being beaten by Joffrey’s men and the scene where Ramsay Bolton rapes her on their wedding night, you cannot help but feel discomforted viewing it. I don’t think any rational person wouldn’t feel uncomfortable watching scenes like that.

However, what is even more uncomfortable is what occurs with the character of Theon Greyjoy – who throughout the course of the show, and the books, has gone through as much brutalization as Sansa. I would argue that what happens to Theon on the show is worse. When I say that “Game of Thrones” doesn’t hold back with showing brutalization of both men and women, this is where I make my point.

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With the character of Theon, we are introduced to him as the character who is taken pity upon by Ned Stark, who proceeds to take him in as his ward. Theon starts of similarly to that of Sansa – arrogant and overconfident, and the character that is probably one of the least liked on the show in the first season. Nonetheless, he gets a taste of what it’s like to be broken to nothing after he makes mistake upon mistake, betraying the Stark family. This leads to he being captured by Ramsay Bolton – who at that point is leading Winterfell with an iron fist. This leads to Theon suffering his own torture.

As if Ramsay cutting Theon’s fingers off isn’t bad enough, but Ramsay further emasculates him by cutting his genitalia off. It simply gets worse as Ramsay is next shown eating a long and plump sausage right in front of his captive, making Theon believe that Ramsay is eating his genitals. In addition to emasculating Theon, Ramsay proceeds to rename him “Reek” to further degrade him.

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With “Game of Thrones” and the way they portray torture so graphically, there is never a moment where emasculation and brutalization are treated as a joke. Whenever you watch those moments, you can hardly help but feel uncomfortable. With “Game of Thrones”, it’s rare that you will find any double standards regarding the treatment of men and women. In Theon and Sansa’s cases, these would be handled differently if these characters were on a sit-com. Sansa’s situations of rape and being stripped and beaten would be treated seriously on almost any cable network show. Unfortunately, Theon’s case would more than likely be turned into a joke about male circumcision and put on an episode of “Married with Children”.

It comes to show that the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the TV show “Game of Thrones” give a truly eye-opening look at how different genders are treated. It displays an old-fashioned viewpoint of the traditional gender roles, which is a given. Nonetheless, it doesn’t display hypocrisy when displaying torture being thrust upon men and women. Theon and Sansa alike are both treated by various characters with a level of brutality to further humiliate and degrade them. It strips them down to being polar opposites of who they used to be before. Sansa starts off as a bratty and pretentious princess who slowly unravels to a woman who is a lot more hardened, yet she manages to not lose her compassion for others. Theon starts off as an arrogant show-off whom after being emasculated is broken to something else utterly. Nonetheless, you cannot deny that there is something to be said here.

With “Game of Thrones”, both men and women alike suffer and get put through more than we could ever imagine. Both genders are shown to receive the same amount of brutal treatment, and there is no sugarcoating anything at all. If anything, the books and the show alike give us material where you don’t need to talk about double standards, because there are essentially none. However, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing and bringing up.

DC-MarvelGirl 1997

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The Potential (And Pitfalls) Of Polyamory In The X-Men Comics

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Two years ago, I wrote an article that explored the idea of using polyamory to resolve the infamous Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine love triangle in the X-Men comics. I admit that it was primarily a thought experiment. It was my way of attempting to resolve what I believe to be the worst manifestation of a love triangle in all of fiction. I never expected it to manifest in any form outside head canon of fan fiction.

Then, “X-Men #1” by Jonathan Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu came out, almost two years to the day that I published that article. While it wasn’t overtly stated that polyamory is now a thing in the X-Men comics, there were certain details that strongly hinted at it, so much so that multiple outlets in the world of comics have taken it seriously.

I’m not saying the article I wrote was prophetic. I certainly didn’t predict that Marvel would ever pursue this recourse or even hint at it. At the same time, it’s kind of surreal that this is something that might actually play out in mainstream superhero comics. The fact that it’s playing out in a company owned by Disney makes that even more astonishing.

Now, before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. After reading “X-Men #1” and all the speculation surrounding it, nothing has been definitively confirmed. The writers and editors at Marvel have not stated outright that they’re actually making Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine a polyamorous couple. It’s been hinted at, but not confirmed on panel.

In comics, that means a lot. Like a death without a body, if it doesn’t happen explicitly on panel, then you can’t assume it did. That’s just how comics work. That extends to love triangles, polyamory, and everything in between.

That said, I think Hickman and Yu have created the right circumstances. Two years ago, Jean Grey was still dead, Cyclops was dead, and Wolverine had just come back to life. The events of House of X and Powers of X establish that the X-Men, and the rest of the mutant race for that matter, have established a new world for themselves on the living island of Krakoa. It’s a chance to do things differently.

In this new setup, the tensions and melodrama of the past are left in the past. The final pages of House of X #6 make that clear, especially with Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. There’s even a nice moment between Jean Grey and Emma Frost, who have been bitter rivals for years. Hickman makes clear that these characters are looking to move forward and not revisit old drama.

The only question is what does that entail? Does moving forward simply mean moving past these old romantic complications? The final pages of “Uncanny X-Men #22,” which predate House of X and Powers of X, establish on panel that Cyclops and Jean Grey are still a thing. They still love each other and don’t hesitate for a second to embrace one another, now that they’re alive again.

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However, it’s not quite as clear that they’re content to pursue the same relationship they had before Jean died at the hands of Magneto back in 2004. On some levels, it makes sense to do something different. Both Cyclops and Jean Grey know what happens when they try to ignore these other feelings. They just fester under the surface and it hurts them both in the long run.

Even though their love for one another is very clear, the way they go about their relationship has shown plenty of flaws, going back to the days of Chris Clarmeont’s run on Uncanny X-Men. They still want to be together. They even want to be a family. The events of “X-Men #1” depict them as more a family than reunited lovers, which I thought was both sweet and overdue.

It’s also in this area that the potential for polyamory has already revealed itself. Most have pointed out the unusual arrangement of Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine’s rooms on the new moon-based Summer house. They’re all connected with Jean’s room in between Cyclops’ and Wolverine’s. They even have doorways between them, which is something the other rooms don’t.

It’s not definitive confirmation, but it certainly implies the possibility. Solicits of future issues have also hinted that Emma Frost may enter the picture as well. If Hickman, Yu, and Marvel are serious about pursuing this plot, then it could open the door for a very different kind of romantic sub-plot, the likes of which we haven’t seen in superhero comics.

While superhero comics have been quite progressive at times, and even somewhat daring, when it comes to pursuing non-traditional relationships, they’ve never attempted to tackle polyamory. Even though it exists in the real world, it’s not something superhero comics have ever taken seriously. This could change that.

A seriously, well-written polyamorous relationship between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine could effectively redefine what it means for these characters to love one another. It helps that it’s happening at a time when the X-Men and the entire mutant race are redefining themselves on Krakoa. They’re building their own homeland and culture. Why wouldn’t they redefine how they handle relationships while they’re at it?

It could address some of the most egregious flaws that the love triangle has propagated over the years. Jean Grey would no longer be a prize to be won by Cyclops or Wolverine. Cyclops would no longer be an obstacle for Wolverine. More importantly, it would allow Wolverine to have his romantic connection with someone without being limited by it. For someone with his extensive romantic history, that’s very important.

However, that’s the best case scenario. It also assumes that Hickman is serious about pursuing this sub-plot. Like I said earlier, it has not be confirmed on-panel. There’s no hint in House of X, Powers of X, or “X-Men #1” that there’s something elaborate going on with them. They just carry themselves as though they’re on much better terms than they were before they all died on one another.

There are risks associated with pursuing this kind of relationship. While Hickman is a great writer with a great pedigree for superhero comics, he’s never tackled a love triangle with this much baggage. If handled poorly, it could do serious damage to all the characters involved.

It could devalue the depth and history of the Cyclops/Jean Grey romance, which is one of the most iconic in all of superhero comics. It could also take a character like Wolverine, who has a complicated history as a loner who rarely gets tied down by one relationship, and make him seem out of character. Him becoming a part of the Summers/Grey family would be like James Bond joining the clergy.

There’s also a chance that a polyamorous relationship with these three could devolve into something that is just played up for novelty. The fact that it’s so different can’t be the only reason for doing it. If it is, then it’s not going to be believable and the characters involved will suffer because of it.

Given how these characters have already suffered, I don’t think the time is right to deconstruct their relationships and romantic sub-plots the only reason for doing so is shock value. These are characters poised to enter the MCU at some point. I doubt Disney will want them overly complicated before that occurs.

Personally, it’s for that reason that I doubt Marvel will seriously pursue a polyamorous relationship between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. They may hint at it. They may tease it. They’ll do everything possible, except depict it on panel, which will keep readers guessing and speculating. It’s something they’ve done before, much to the chagrin of fans.

If they do try it, though, I sincerely hope that Hickman, Lu, and the rest of Marvel’s creative team takes the concept seriously. The X-Men, throughout their history, have depicted characters who are very different, if not downright weird compared to the rest of the world. If that’s going to extend to how they pursue romance and relationships, then it deserves a serious effort.

However, it cannot and should not come at the cost of the characters or the iconic romances that came before it.

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What Does It Mean For A Woman To “Own” Her Sexuality?

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In a perfect world, human sexuality wouldn’t be so political. From  a biological and societal standpoint, the fundamentals are simple.

Two people meet.

They gauge one another’s interest.

They decide to engage in an intimate relationship.

Together, they make a mutual effort to enjoy the fruits of that relationship.

Ideally, an expression of sexuality is a mutual exchange between two people seeking an intimate connection. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, or something more elaborate. So long as those involved are willing, considerate, and open, everyone shares in the benefits.

Sadly, we don’t live in that perfect world. Like it or not, human sexuality is one of the most politically charged topics anyone can discuss. It’s connected to hot button issues like abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, child welfare, poverty, crime, human trafficking, and even religion. Considering its role in propagating our species, it’s understandable why discussions about about it get heated.

That said, some of those discussions are political for all the wrong reasons. A few are even built on a foundation of absurdities that only serve to distort our perspectives on human sexuality and not in a good way. One of those discussions involve the idea of a woman “owning her sexuality.”

This idea isn’t new, but it has become a more common refrain in recent years, often in conjunction with media depictions of female sexuality. It’s become a slogan, of sorts, for whenever a female celebrity or fictional character does something that’s sexually empowering. Depending on where someone is on the political spectrum, they’ll either cheer or scorn their actions.

However, what constitutes “sexual empowerment” is poorly defined and exceedingly inconsistent. In some cases, empowerment involves a woman being more sexual than society at large deems appropriate. In other cases, empowerment involves a woman being less sexual or less feminine. Here are just a few examples.

When Miley Cyrus was nude in one of her music videos, some saw this as empowering.

When Lara Croft was redesigned to be less sexy in her 2014 reboot, some saw this as empowering.

When Muslim women justify restrictive Islamic dress codes, some saw this as empowering.

When some women decided to stop shaving their body hair, some saw this as empowering.

Regardless of what form it takes, the empowerment is framed as women either reclaiming or owning their sexual selves. What it means is often vague, but it usually carries a particular set of connotations.

To own one’s sexuality is to break a set of unspoken rules, give the finger to an unjust system, and forge your own sexual path. It’s like that moment in every great sports movie where the underdog beats the odds and triumphs over their evil opponents. In that triumph, their notion of what constitutes a fair and just expression of human sexuality is vindicated. All others are somehow flawed.

I concede that this is a gross generalization, but it’s the most common narrative I see whenever there’s a story about a woman owning her sexuality. It’s built around the assumption that female sexuality is always the underdog and to own it, a woman needs to somehow seize it from the clutches of repressive, misogynistic men.

Now, I don’t deny that there are many injustices in the current social landscape. Historically, female sexuality has been subject to seriously repressive taboos. Even today, there are still various taboos about female sexual pleasure. Many women genuinely suffer because of it. The idea of women enjoying sex as much as men is still jarring to some people. Some even find it threatening.

In that sense, I don’t blame women for wanting to embrace their sexual selves in an environment that treats their sexuality as tool for political issues or marketing. Like men, they have feelings and desires. They have every right to pursue them with the same passion as anyone else. When it comes to “owning” it, though, the terminology tends to obscure that pursuit.

The fact that “owning” your sexuality can mean so many different things ensures it ultimately means very little. It has become one of those vague, catch-all terms that’s supposed to mark something as meaningful, progressive, or enlightened. In many cases, it comes down to people using sexuality to provoke a reaction, garner attention, or protest an injustice.

While I’m in favor of protesting sexual injustices, the fact that “owning your sexuality” is such an ambiguous act makes it a poor form of protest. All it does is assert that you can make choices about how you express your sexuality and you’re willing to endure the criticism. That doesn’t say anything about the injustice itself.

If anything, the very concept of owning your sexuality raises more questions than answers. To own something implies possession. The fact that a woman owning her sexuality is so celebrated implies that the woman didn’t possess it in the first place. If that’s the case, then when was it taken from her? At what point did she not own it? What did she have to overcome in order to get it back?

To some extent, for a woman to own her sexuality, she and others like her must buy into the idea that someone else governs it to some extent. In some cases, it’s the media with their depictions of idealized feminine beauty. In others, it’s repressive religious dogma that seeks to control female sexuality.

While there are real instances of women having to escape repressive environments, there’s a big difference between a female celebrity posing nude for a magazine and a woman being brutally punished for committing adultery. One involves someone escaping a coercive force that causes them real physical harm. The other involves them doing something that will only subject them to harsh scrutiny, at worst.

In that context, a woman owning her sexuality is no different than willingly enduring extra criticism and aggressive slut shaming. Can it be excessive? It certainly can be. Is it the same as someone putting their life and their body at risk in order to express their sexuality? I would argue that it isn’t.

I know my opinion may not count for much on this issue since I’m a heterosexual man. I concede that there’s only so much I can understand about the female experience. At the same time, I feel inclined to point out that men are human too. Men are also burdened by various taboos and double standards. As such, a man “owning his sexuality” is subject to entirely different standards.

The fact that those standards are so different implies that there’s little substance behind the concept. If a woman can act overtly sexual in one instance and exercise extreme modesty, yet claim to own her sexuality in both cases, then where does the ownership come in? At what point is it any different than just making choices and living with them?

If there is no difference, then the concept is ultimately pointless.

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Mia Kalifa, The Porn Industry, And Why Her (Lack Of) Earnings Matter

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Imagine that you’re young, low on money, and in need of a quick buck. You do a few side-gigs, like drive a taxi or do some yard work. You make some money up front. You’re grateful for it. You wish you didn’t have to do it, but you still did and you’re ready to move forward with your life.

Now, imagine that same work you did ended up making someone else a boatload of money that continues to flow in, even though you’ve long since finished your part. Maybe while mowing the lawn, you discovered a priceless artifact under a tree stump. Maybe while driving a taxi, your car became the site of an infamous crime. Anyone with a white 1993 Ford Bronco SUV can attest to that.

With those ideas in mind, let’s talk about Mia Kalifa. If you don’t know who that is, just ask any straight man with an internet connection and a suspiciously large supply of tissue boxes. You might not get an honest answer, but rest assured, she’s a known public figure and not just because she has over 15 million followers on Instagram.

One of the reasons why she has so many.

She’s worth talking about, but not because she’s a former porn star who still garners a great deal of popularity, despite having not worked in the industry for years. Recently, she made the news after revealing that, even though she was one of the most popular porn stars in the world for a time, she made a total of $12,000 for her entire career.

For someone who was that successful in an industry that’s already exceedingly crowded by an abundance of content, that just doesn’t seem to add up. Most working people make more than $12,000 in a year, even if they’re paid minimum wage. They even get to keep their clothes on. What’s going on here?

There is a context to that story. By her own admission, she was in the industry for about three months. She only got paid a flat rate of about $1,000 for each scene she did and, given how few she ended up doing, it’s still more than minimum wage. She basically made $12,000 for approximately two weeks of work. Ignoring, for the moment, that the work involved making porn, it’s not a terrible rate.

However, what stands out most about her story is that she continues to generate money for the companies that initially paid her. To this day, those scenes she shot still generate traffic for popular sites like PornHub and that traffic still makes its parent company, MindGeek, some additional profit.

Most people don’t know, or want to know for that matter, that the most popular porn sites and studios are owned by MindGeek. Think of any site your significant other won’t admit to visiting. Chances are, they own it. They’re basically the Amazon of porn. They’re so big that there really isn’t a close second.

It’s because they’re so big that Ms. Kalifa’s story isn’t unique. Most people who enter the porn industry, be they male or female, have to go through MindGeek in some form or another. They’re basically a monopoly and because of that, they can get away with shady practices, such as underpaying workers or short-changing them with fine print.

Listed above are sites few will admit to knowing.

Most porn performers, including Ms. Kalifa, only get paid a flat rate per scene. They basically function as independent contractors, which means they’re not salaried employees who get benefits. They’re basically Uber drivers, but with sex. Unlike Uber drivers, though, the top performers can actually make a lot more, but they’re the exception and not the norm. Most performers are in Ms. Kalifa’s situation.

It’s not a situation unique to porn. Other elements of the entertainment industry have used similar practices for years. The music industry has plenty of examples of successful artists who sell millions of albums, but still go bankrupt because most of that money went to the companies they worked for rather than the artists themselves.

It even happens in the comic book industry. Few individuals have created and drawn more iconic character than Jack Kirby, but because he was a work-for-hire, he didn’t technically own his creations. The companies he worked for, both Marvel and DC Comics, owned them. As a result of this, there were some lengthy legal battles with Kirby’s estate. Not surprisingly, the companies won.

Think of any industry that involves performing or creating some kind of art. There’s a good chance that there are cases where someone creates something that becomes successful, but the creators themselves don’t profit from it. Only the companies profit.

Again, there’s a context to that. In industries like music, the top one percent of performers earn over three-quarters of the revenue. Most creative endeavors fail to turn a profit. As someone trying hard to break into the publishing industry, I can attest to how common failure and rejection are. These industries, as shady as their practices might be, need to make a profit and that often requires enduring many losses.

That’s exactly why Mia Kalifa’s story matters. It doesn’t just shed light on the less glamorous aspects of the porn industry. It highlights how the actual people behind popular media don’t reap as much of the benefits as we think. For porn stars, current and former, that’s made even harder by the stigma and taboos surrounding the industry. Ms. Kalifa endured those unpleasant elements more than most.

It’s a system that’s only getting worse. There was a time when porn stars could make considerably more money and even earn some residual income from the booming DVD market. Thanks to the advent of streaming media and excessive piracy, that’s no longer the case. It’s why many porn stars are turning to escorting or licensing products.

Given the dirty nature of the business, few politicians or advocates will loudly proclaim they want to help the people in the porn industry. The last few years have been very difficult for anyone in the sex industry. Laws are making sex work more restrictive and more dangerous to everyone involved. Performers will end up with the stigma, but the companies will get most of the profits.

To some extent, what happened to Mia Kalifa’s career is a microcosm of what’s happening to entertainment in general. We’re currently in an era where big companies are acquiring as much intellectual property as possible. Companies, be they major movie studios or porn producers, have a vested interest in controlling the content at the cost of the performers.

Since so few entertainment products turn a profit, these companies have too much incentive to short-change performers and creators. There’s no law that requires companies to give performers a small percentage of future earnings. There’s no law that stops them from exploiting the content created by performers, even if those same performers don’t want to be associated with the work anymore.

Given the money and influence of these companies, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, Mia Kalifa did us all a service by making people aware of this very flawed system. The fact that she did this while fully clothed and being brutally honest in a world that lives in alternative facts might be her best performance to date.

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The (Surprising) Sources And Implications Of Slut Shaming

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As a fan of romance and people exploring their sexy side, I’m generally opposed to slut shaming. I understand why it exists, to some extent. Nearly every society in history has had certain hang-ups about sex. Considering its role in propagating the species, it’s understandable that people give it extra scrutiny.

That said, I consider slut shaming a misguided form of scrutiny. The definition, itself, has some ugly implications that go far beyond the inherent risks associated with being reckless, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

For one, it’s almost entirely heaped upon women. James Bond never gets called a slut for his promiscuous behavior. Instead, he gets to be a masculine icon. A woman who has just as much sex gets called a slut and is often painted as deviant. Look no further than legendary Bond girls like Xania Onatopp and Pussy Galore for proof of that.

While it can be pretty overt in popular media, it’s even more pernicious in real life. From women who choose wear revealing clothing to those who actively attempt to confront sexual stigma, there’s no shortage of shaming from multiple directions. It’s frustrating in that it amounts to incessant whining about how other people choose to live their lives, but recent research has cast slut shaming in a new light.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior attempted to analyze how behaviors associated with slut shaming differed among genders. The popular narrative is that men do most of the slut shaming. The logic is that men see beautiful women having a lot of sex. That bothers them because those women aren’t having sex with them.

Granted, that’s a gross generalization that I’m sure many men and even a few women find offensive. Despite the details, that is the common narrative and it tends to play out in one too many teen comedies. However, science has a way of disrupting those narratives in unexpected ways.

The study revealed that while men and women were equally likely to not trust promiscuous women, women who were more likely to favor punishing those women. In a comprehensive summary conducted by PsyPost, the differences were pretty striking.

“In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.”

Take a moment to comprehend what this does to the slut shaming narrative. For those who idealize that 1950s sitcom family life that never truly existed, it’s an aberration. While those women make for good one-night-stands, they hardly make for quality long-term relationships.

Why, then, would men be reluctant to punish those women? I’ve noted before how society tends to micromanage women’s bodies. Slut shaming is only a half-measure because it offers no tangible punishment. While certain societies don’t mind punishing promiscuous women, it doesn’t appear to be entirely predicated on male attitudes.

This study shows that women are just as mistrustful of promiscuous women and are willing to go further in terms of punishing their behavior. The reasons for this are difficult to surmise. The researchers hypothesized that men were primarily concerned with avoiding investment in a child that wasn’t theirs. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s something to avoid, but not punish.

Conversely, women may be more concerned with the bigger picture. The researchers surmised that women had an evolutionary imperative to keep the cost of sex high to improve their value as potential partners. Actively punishing potential rivals further served that purpose.

From a logistical standpoint, it makes sense. They see beautiful, promiscuous women as people who use cheat codes in video games. They have an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting potential partners and that has significant consequences, especially to those who aren’t beautiful or sexually flexible.

Beyond distracting partners who might otherwise be interested in them, it lowers the value of the sex they have to offer. Why would men be as interested in having sex with them when there are promiscuous women who were willing to give it to them for a lower cost with fewer strings?

While I believe this may be a factor for some women, it’s also another broad generalization that would offend more than a few women. It assumes too much about how they think and feel. Believing women slut shame because it hinders their own sexual value is as absurd as blaming all misogyny on some vast patriarchal conspiracy.

Like all research, the study is limited and can only reveal so much about the complexities of human behavior. The researchers themselves freely admitted this, but that’s exactly why it warrants further study. Like it or not, slut shaming is still prominent in most modern societies. I would argue that the internet and social media are making it worse.

At the same time, I also believe that slut shaming is something we should confront. It causes real harm to real people. It damages our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. There are instances in which someone’s irresponsible sexual behavior genuinely warrants scrutiny, but shaming can only serve to make things worse, even for people who aren’t sluts.

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