Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Is it Feminist To Wear a Strap-On?

September 11, 2018

Poet Lisa Luxx debates a queer woman’s responsibility in unpicking her patriarchal behavior in the bedroom.

I’m in a bar in Beirut when my lover’s friend asks me, “if you’re such a feminist who speaks of liberating the cunt from patriarchal bullshit, then why do you use strap-ons?” Her argument was that as lesbians we’re sexually creative enough to not need them – we know how to make a woman come using an elbow – so why would we bring something that relates to men into a sexual space meant for women? She was basically asking me to justify being a “hypocrite”.

I debated whether social politics needed to cross the bedroom door, or whether there ought to be a place where I – perpetually on a feminist crusade – can take a break from my gender and everything that goes along with it. And anyway, sex is the healthiest place to exercise our fears and thrills around power. But months later I’m wondering: how much have I internalised society’s heteronormativity, and am now reinforcing male dominance in my most intimate space? More importantly, is this behaviour conducive to a feminist mode of being, or is it causing damage to the work I’m doing in the streets?

When a heterosexual person asks, “but how do lesbians have sex?” what they mean is “aren’t women’s bodies lacking a vital organ that’s needed for sex?” The general consensus is that a cis woman’s body is incomplete as a sexual tool, and dick is needed because dick represents sex. When we fork out generous amounts of cash for strap-ons are we setting that message deeper into our bodies? Are we still being fucked by the patriarchy even when there are no men in the room?

My most vivid experiencing of embodying that message was when I first got vulvadynia – essentially phantom stabbing pains in your vulva – which meant I was no longer able to have sex the way I had before. Vulvadynia is hugely overlooked and shrugged at by the western medical world, who know very little about cunts outside of birthing. It meant my vulva was a minefield I couldn’t understand; the lightest touch could hit a nerve that would cause both physical pain and mental chaos. So I became entirely detached from my own pussy, and strapped-on more than ever. If I wanted to have sex, I’d have sex like a man. I took on a whole other persona rooted in misogynistic language and masculine power-play. After a year of this I’d become so detached from my own body that I was becoming dysphoric. My magnificent cunt now seemed strange and underwhelming.

Stephanie Theobald, author of the upcoming (and long-awaited) memoir, Sex Drive – about the “second sexual revolution” wherein vulva-owners realise the intricate pleasure power of their cunt – argues we shouldn’t overthink what turns us on. “We make up stories in our heads. Sometimes I call my clit a dick, and that turns me on. Dicks are associated with power and we’re toying with that story.” I’m not convinced. Isn’t our overthinking invaluable? I’m not the only queer feminist at the party, spending way more time policing the ethics of my desire than flirting. Tracing maps of misogyny impressed into my psyche. Working out how to want women in ways unlike patriarchy does.

I learnt from mainstream (i.e. hetero-normative male-dominant) culture how to enact my desire for women. There were no readily available movies or books or TV series that presented an alternative. So when it comes to turning desire into action, how much do I echo male codes of behaviour?

Jay, a queer trans man who used to identify as a butch lesbian, tells me, “I know from when I was feminine presenting what it feels like to have a man look you up and down, so I’m really careful to never do that. Starting my sexual life as a ‘dominant’ figure in a lesbian relationship, I’ve always been wary of upholding cis straight male culture in the bedroom – and this concern only grew when I transitioned, but this time from a trans male point of view.”

In Sex Drive, Theobald suggests that women are not ego-led enough to compare their flirting to that of cis men. When I ask my bisexual friend, Amani Saeed, she says the way she approaches women is not something she’s policed herself about because, “I’m automatically in awe of her. Men have to earn my respect but women already have it.” She puts women on a pedestal – a feeling I know well. But I question her, don’t you think that this is just as problematic? Women on pedestals have a long way to fall. When we put anyone on a pedestal we are perpetuating two-tier power dynamics that are the cause of our gender rupture.

Men similarly put women on pedestals, are in awe of their image of her, and subsequently try to diminish her, so that they don’t feel dwarfed by the size of her beauty and strength. I can’t help but think that we dominate as an attempt to protect ourselves from beauty’s affect. When we most want to bow at a woman’s feet, the need to assert supremacy becomes more urgent for it saves our vulnerability.

Queer psychologist Sanah Ahsan suggests, that the pleasure in using a strap-on for people with vulvas might come from that fact that “someone else is opening up while you’re protecting your own opening. The power lies in your boundary remaining intact.” On a base, physical level, this is exactly why I used strap-ons while I had vulvadynia – I was protecting my own cunt from physical pain. But of course, it’s not just physical pain that we’re seeking protection from. Ahsan goes on to note that the use of strap-ons, “gets into these complex notions of what being entered means to each of us as individuals based on what we’ve experienced in our early life.”

Amani and I agree that as women we inherently have more respect for one another because of the shared experience of moving through the world gendered female. Though Jay points out that “we attribute abusive natures to men but you’re not immune from being abusive just because you’re a woman in a relationship with a woman.” My most abusive relationship was with a woman, one who, in the context of sex, was the “less dominant, more feminine” one. So shouldn’t the query really be about how we define dominance?

Why are we reading phallic as “retainer of power”? Amani challenges me: “Why does dominant have to mean patriarchal? If you’re wearing a strap-on and a woman is riding you, she is taking her pleasure from you, so who is the one with the power?” Both and neither, Jay argues: “if my girlfriend is riding me it feels like we’re both getting the satisfaction of being dominant – and it has nothing to do with gender.”

Dick as sexual force is a narrative we choose to perpetuate which only gives it more strength. When Jay’s girlfriend first offered to buy him a strap-on, his answer was, “No, I’m terrified of dick, I can’t wear one or I’ll be scared of my own dick!” The way he worked to get over this was by initially interacting with the strap-on in a non-sexual way: “I just wore it while we watched a movie and ate cereal out of the box.”

In some instances, the phallus has been disconnected with the narrative of maleness. For instance, you can now buy strap-ons that have nothing to do with human penises and even less to do with maleness – like the “dragon dick” or a dildo shaped like a goddess. That’s when the performative nature of gender is best revealed. Theobald adds that strap-ons are better than “real” dicks  because they are “reliable – no premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction.” And let’s be honest, the best dick is one you can take off and put in a drawer at the end of the day.

She is adamant that debating whether it’s feminist enough to use a strap-on in a dominant way is just another thing that women beat themselves up about. “I remember one guy saying to me, ‘if you wear a strap-on to shag it’s because you want a dick.’ I said ‘actually, vegetarians like Linda McCartney Sausages but it doesn’t mean they actually want to eat meat.’” She goes on to emphasize the gap between real life and fantasy. If your fantasy is, say, “being tied to the altar by a priest” then in real life,” she notes, “you are probably aware that this is not on.”

What worries Theobald is when women fret about whether their fantasies are feminist enough. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s important to align my fantasies with my ethics, because if you revisit a damaging visualisation too often in your head then it’s bound to find its way into your behaviour. If I’m not going to dedicate myself to re-programming all this, and creating a safe space within sexuality for women to escape patriarchal domination, then how can I expect men, or anyone else, to re-program themselves?

We’ve been taught that, as women, our bodies are vulnerable. Social and economic inequality was justified by the belief that because we are often built smaller than men we are weaker. It’s rooted so deeply, because on top of that rhetoric people raised female were rarely encouraged to connect with their bodies, and so it’s too easy to disassociate from it, to feel it’s not enough. These orgasms we have while wearing strap-ons are mental orgasms, since they’re not inherently responses to touch based sensations but rather its the idea and visuals which bring the wearer to climax. The act of which widens that disassociation from the body.

Ultimately, it’s not the strap-on itself, but what lies behind the need for “power” that brings us closer to our oppressor: fear. Fear of one’s own inherent vulnerability, and the all-encompassing need to hide that vulnerability. That’s not to say that this power symbol – the phallus, the strap-on – needs to be binned, but rather, its nuances need to be read. The fear of being less feminist, or of undermining my activism or work through how I fuck, is only valid if I’m not being mindful about my power-play.

At this stage, I am less unnerved by my contradictions. It is in my contradictions that every point I make about male dominance becomes more potent. The most effective argument, on any topic, comes from someone who can empathise with their opponent, for it is only through doing this that new ground can be reached. Because I know what it is to feel phallic power, the arguments I can make about it are better informed. Yet after unpicking my need to utilise notions of dominance it’s clear that the most urgent feminist issue at play here is unlearning how I’ve been taught to feel towards my own body; our most critical work starts with unpacking and rebuilding the self.

Lisa Luxx is a poet and essayist of British Syrian heritage. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, journals and magazines internationally, including i-D, Dazed, and The International Times. Her work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, VICE TV, TEDx and ITV. Her next book, Breastmilk Martini, is a love-anarchist collection for the anti-romance generation – due for release in 2019.

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